March 12th 2014

Chances are you learned to read early in life and take pleasure in doing so. By now, the act of reading is automatic and requires no conscious effort. Perhaps you even describe yourself as an avid reader. If so, you are among the educational elite in Dona Ana County. Far too many of your neighbors have not had the opportunity to reach full employability and self-sufficiency because of an inadequate level of literacy.

According to statistics reported by Colleen Heild in the Albuquerque Journal, more than 80 percent of New Mexico’s children from low-income families are behind on the first day of kindergarten and one in four is unable to read even one letter of the alphabet.

Today’s column celebrates the efforts of six Las Crucens who are taking the initiative within their own neighborhoods to improve the prospects for children by building literacy skills within families.

Conlee Elementary school teachers Elizabeth McDonald, Clara Lopez , and Kim Ortiz, and Jornada Elementary teachers, Sarah Johnson, Nicole Scott and Martha Benavidez are welcoming parents of preschoolers to join them after school. Together they talk and play and discover how children develop language skills.

Using the First Teacher curriculum developed in Las Cruces, parents engage in purposeful play and read aloud activities to prepare their children for future success in school.  A sampling of parent comments at the end of six weeks reveal that parents see positive changes at home.  ‘’I never thought just reading with my child would be such a bonding moment. Before, my son did not like to be held but as we started to read together his walls started to come down. Now he can’t wait for our reading time to come.”

“We set aside 30 minutes a night for reading and play time. We are able to spend quality time together with useful materials. My children are engaged and excited to do something new with learning!”

“There is so much we do now that we did not do before. Like… while driving we point out letters, colors, and shapes. We sing the ABC’s every morning on the way to the babysitter. My daughter points out the colors of her food. She draws shapes and letters and tells a story about her pictures.”

“We spend more time as a family. We enjoy more family activities. My kids really enjoy the books and toys. I personally enjoy every toy because that helps me to have more activities with them. We are learning at the same time.”

“My daughter always takes her little purse with her when we go out. She used to put jewelry in it. Now, she packs her books in her purse.”

The premise of First Teacher workshops is that parents provide their children with the cornerstone of learning success when they share a love of learning at home before their children enter school. In Las Cruces, First Teacher workshops are supported by a grant from the Stocker Foundation.

Teachers at Conlee and Jornada are engaging families of preschoolers in a new and powerful way. While this is a local effort that concentrates on the needs of our specific community, it also reflects a new trend in education toward creating more community centered schools.

According to Amy Dean in the current issue of YES! Magazine, “Around the country, public schools are reestablishing teachers as partners in a child’s learning and development.” New programs initiated by teachers are creating relationships with parents to insure school success.