OUTLOOK: Groups come together to promote literacy


  • Posted on March 30, 2016

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Originally appeared in The Record February 19, 2016

By Lori Gilbert
The Record Staff Writer

The report card was grim.

University of the Pacific’s assessment of San Joaquin County literacy showed only 27 percent of the region’s third-graders have grade-level proficiency, an achievement experts insist is the key to future educational success.

“Children learn to read until third grade and read to learn after,” is the theory.

But if the number is disappointing, those working to improve the county’s literacy concerns see plenty of reason to be optimistic.

In 2015, Read to Me Stockton!, which provides free books monthly to children from birth to age 5, added children in the 95215 zip code, bringing the total number of zip codes to five.

San Joaquin Regional Transit District started Books on the Bus, providing books for children to read while riding and to take home with them like a library book. A sign of its success? A Delta College student posted video on Twitter of a stranger reading to children during a bus ride in October.

And, pushed by then-Stockton City Councilman Moses Zapien, Little Public Libraries began popping up in neighborhoods throughout the city, providing books for readers of all ages.

Also, San Joaquin-Stockton Public Library continues to hold weekly story time for youngsters, has a summer book buddies program in which volunteer high school tutors work with children with reading struggles and those whose parents don’t want them to lose their reading skills during their summer break. The library also linked into a national on-line tutoring program that students with a library card can use to connect one-on-one with a tutor, conducts conversation English classes for adults and makes the Rosetta Stone program available for English learners.

Pacific’s Beyond Our Gates held summer enrichment programs with college students as tutors for children at community centers at Sierra Vista and Conway Homes.

The Rotary Read-In, which invites members of the public to take 30 minutes out of one day in February, will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Thursday and the number of schools involved and the number of readers grows annually.

Most importantly, there is a greater movement on the part of nonprofit organizations and churches to improve Stockton’s literacy rates.

“I think the thing I’m most proud of when it comes to Beyond our Gates, is the many individuals and organizations that have come together to support early literacy, and not necessarily the ones you think,” said Jennifer Torres Siders, communications director for Pacific’s Beyond Our Gates program.

It launched in 2011 after a series of community meetings looked at issues facing Stockton. After much discussion, members of the group’s board determined that improving early childhood literacy rates — preparing children before they start school and helping them achieve grade-level proficiency by the end of third grade — was the area that would have the greatest overall impact.

The program kicked off not long after Read to Me Stockton!, which began for the same reason. Spearheaded by then-mayor/Rotary member Ann Johnston, Read to Me, Stockton! connected with the Dolly Parton Foundation to secure free books every month for children where books in the home are rare or nonexistent. It began in one Stockton zip code and gradually has added more households.

“My goal always was to have every child in the City of Stockton, in any zip code, who want to, be enrolled in Read to Me, Stockton!,” Johnston said. “But, it would cost a half-million dollars.”

The budget for that isn’t there yet, but the program has continued to exist through major sponsors, including Kaiser, Rotary and PG&E. Johnston is proud that 80,000 books have been distributed to local children in four years.

Beyond Our Gates didn’t introduce new programs, but it brought together 50 organizations committed to literacy.

“What we’re seeing now is a sharing of resources, and collaboration going on,” said Suzy Daveluy, deputy community services director for the library. “Solid partnerships are developing among safe-based organizations and schools and non-profits and libraries. It’s been wonderful to see them come together and work together.”

Among them is RTD, which started putting books on some of its buses in August.

“We started working with Beyond Our Gates, and as we were getting involved in the community as an agency, we thought, ‘what is it that makes us unique?’ ” RTD spokesperson Max Vargas said. “A lot of our ridership is not affluent or upwardly mobile. We were trying to figure out how to take an innovative, direct hands-on approach.”

With donations, RTD has put about 1,000 books on buses and will be conducting more book drives in the future.

One big initiative for 2016 is the First 5 California’s promotion of Talk. Sing. Read., which encourages parents to engage children from birth. Babies’ brains start developing on Day 1, and talking to them, playing with them, reading to them, singing to them helps develop verbal and literacy skills.

It’s yet another important step in long-term battle for literacy, yet most involved remain upbeat.

“I’m a born optimist,” Johnston said. “I always believe things are going to get better. I see what the community is doing. It’s engaged.”

“I’m continually hopeful, because the issue of illiteracy continues to garner such incredible community support,” Daveluy said. “So many organizations are recognizing the need for literacy support and are stepping up in big ways. This is a community effort. We are reaching more and more people, collaborating in new ways, and we will be successful.”

— Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or lgilbert@recordnet.com. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord

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