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Cover story: Connecting the dots - Community building for English Learners
Voice: September 2018
This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. For other stories in the series go to www.psea.org/learninglessons.
On a warm, June day, the sun is peeking through the leaves of towering oak trees outside the Third and Spruce Recreation Center in Reading. Groups of students are huddled around enthusiastic teachers. Children are laughing, smiling, and enjoying their lessons.
And as the breeze blows and birds sing a summer song, this doesn’t feel like a community that is struggling. It doesn’t feel like a community with 40 percent of its residents living in poverty. It feels like a community with hope.
Bringing an opportunity
When Daphne Klahr, executive director of the Reading Recreation Commission, learned about the Teachers in the Parks program, she was eager to bring it to the children and community she serves.
“Kids in the city of Reading deserve the same opportunities as kids everywhere,” she said.
Klahr found support from administrators in the Reading School District, Berks County, and parents in the community. She sent fliers home with the tagline, “Give your child an advantage this summer.” The response was overwhelmingly positive.
She also found support in Exeter Township EA member and founder of Teachers in the Parks, Matthew Hathaway.
“All children deserve access to quality summer learning programs. Teachers in the Parks started in Exeter, but the research is clear. All children slide in math and reading, but especially those in poverty,” Hathaway said. “So when there was an opportunity to work with the Reading Recreation Commission, we jumped on it right away.”
More than 80 children already attend a summer program at Third and Spruce Recreation Center. They participate in the “Give a Book, Get a Book’’ initiative to encourage literacy skills. And they receive a free lunch through a federally funded program.
Hathaway believes in meeting children in their natural summer environments, so the location was the perfect venue for a Teachers in the Parks site. But finding teachers to be a part of the program proved to be a challenge of a different kind.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Hathaway said. “We had to turn away more than 30 teachers this year because we didn’t have the capacity in our first pilot year to serve that many. Just imagine the possibilities for children in Reading, or any major city, if teachers filled the parks to help children bridge the summer gap.”
A calling to serve
Wilson EA member and reading specialist Teresa Lubas no longer teaches in the Reading School District, but it’s close to her heart. She grew up in Reading, is a Reading High School alumni, taught in the district for more than five years, and is invested in the community. She knew the Teachers in the Parks program would be a success.
“A lot of these kids come to the after-school program,” she said. “This is home to them. They come here in the summer to the parks and since they spend such a great deal of time here, the best way to help them educationally is to have a program like this.”
Lubas worked with rising first- and second-grade students on the first day of Teachers in the Parks in Reading.
“I read a story to the kids today called, ‘First Day Jitters,’” she said. “And the whole time, the kids believed the story was about a little kid nervous about the first day of school. And then they realized it is about a teacher, and they laughed. It really broke the ice.”
Bernadette Norton is a school counselor in the Reading School District and a member of Reading EA. She believes the casual nature of Teachers in the Parks helps with its success, especially in a community like Reading.
“It’s in the neighborhood where the kids already are, and it’s extra help for them in a no-pressure environment,” she said.
Kayla Welsh, a Reading EA member and fifth-grade teacher, is eager to see the progress her students make over the summer.
“Throughout the year, you work with the students every single day in language arts,” she said. “In the Reading School District, we use a system where they move up levels and when they come back after summer, they’ve either moved down a level or two levels. I think Teachers in the Parks will really help bridge that gap so they don’t lose what they learned throughout the school year.”
Addressing the two-thirds
Hathaway is passionate about expanding Teachers in the Parks because he cares about the kids and their success.
“I think a program like Teachers in the Parks is important in any community,” he said. “Districts isolate themselves and think only children who attend their schools are their responsibility. That’s not true. Children in every community are going to grow up to become our teachers, our doctors, our business people, our workforce.”
He noted that this thought process also applies when the outcome is negative.
“If we don’t reach them, they are also going to become our social responsibility. They’re going to become our responsibility with health care, they’re going to become our responsibility with welfare. And statistically they are more likely to become our responsibility in the prison system,” Hathaway said. “I’d rather spend a few hundred dollars per child every summer to provide a meaningful learning experience than tens of thousands of dollars when they are adults in need of social programs.
“If we can reach them early, make them literate by third grade, and sustain their success through ninth grade, then children are far more likely to lead satisfying and rewarding lives.”
To learn more about Teachers in the Parks, visit www.teachersintheparks.com.