By Blake Tommey
As beach memories fade and entire households gear up for a new school year, a cluster of Houston families is breathing easier — their preschoolers have been learning for months at Willow Meadows Baptist Church’s “Ready for School” program.
The early childhood reading program, which received a $5,000 CBF Ministries Council grant in June, prepares preschoolers for public school by building language and cognitive skills. It has found a vital place among Hispanic and Latino families from an apartment community just down the street from Willow Meadows, said Lisa Sandoz Robinson, program director and former librarian at Shearn Elementary School.
In partnership with the local YMCA, Robinson began the program in February and has since engaged more than 20 children and caregivers in weekly literacy activities right from their own apartment complex. Each Wednesday morning at 11 a.m., preschoolers engage in games, singing and book-reading with their parent or caregiver, all designed to foster learning at home, even for children as young as nine months, Robinson explained.
“We’re really training the caregiver to be the child’s first teacher; so everything I do is modeling for the caregivers. The caregivers also receive specific instructions at the end of each session on what to do at home,” Robinson said.
“A critical point of the program is for the kids to hear language, both through read-alouds and conversation since they must build a large vocabulary to become strong readers later on. Starting that process for an 11-month-old is far better than starting when a child is already a four-year-old. That gives a child an extra three years with a stronger support system for their intellectual as well as social and emotional development.”
Research continues to prove that a child experiences his or her most rapid brain growth between birth and age five, making exposure to reading critical. In fact, experts are nearly unanimous in correlating a young child’s exposure to books and reading with elevated communication skills and intelligence later in life. That’s why each Ready for School lesson revolves around a storybook, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Robinson said, building other cognitive and motor skill exercises around it.
That’s also why families receive their own copy of the day’s book at the end of each lesson. Each 10-week curriculum culminates with a free book fair, where families can stock up on books for the summer. By the time the children begin school at Shearn Elementary, also just around the corner from Willow Meadows, their brains have developed to meet the challenge of becoming a successful bilingual Latino student in the United States.
“This program has been so great. We have our church supporting it. We have a community organization supporting it, and we’re working with these immigrant families who live on very little income. This is a way for us to support both the child and the caregiver and help make them as successful as possible here in the U.S. Over the last six months, they have come to understand that our program is here for them, week in and week out, at 11 a.m. on Wednesdays, and that we’ll be there for whoever can come. We have even continued an informal story time throughout the summer months so that we could keep the momentum for the program going.
“For Hispanic and Latino families living near their federal poverty threshold, support and confidence are not abundant. As children enter the U.S. public school system, Robinson says, students often fight an uphill battle and parents struggle to find education resources. Now with an early childhood literacy program right outside their doorstep, Robinson says, families will have an opportunity not only to kickstart their children’s brain development, but to experience an American community that loves them and wants to see them flourish in the United States.
“Those of us who are working with the families each week are able to share the love of Christ with them through sharing these wonderful books, songs, games and other activities. And of course, that love is reflected right back to us by these amazing children and caregivers! It’s truly an honor and privilege to work with these families.”
“Since these are families from my former school, I have seen the struggle,” Robinson added.
“I have seen the kids coming in and wrestling with different aspects of being in the school system. I have seen the parents, especially the moms, keeping to themselves. But now I see this wonderful program that helps the children and their parents acclimate better to what is such a huge part of American life — the public school system. After making connections both to church members and others in the community as well as their fellow classmates and families, they can begin school with a stronger foundation. That support will then have a ripple effect through the school and on to the larger community.”