Sharica A. Bond says she spends a lot of time at her son Damairee’s school in part because of his urging. The 4-year-old is excited when she visits his classroom, and he tells her at home, “You have to go back to school.”
Damairee’s school, Moten at Wilkinson Elementary School, located just east of the Anacostia River in the nation’s capital, makes it convenient for parents to be a regular daily presence. The school hosts a family-literacy program that places parents for a couple of hours each week in classrooms, learning side by side with their children. The program also offers separate parenting classes and preparation to earn a General Educational Development certificate for several hours each day.
The 6-year-old literacy program at Moten is one of 93 in 30 different cities across the country underwritten by the Toyota Motor Corp., so it’s free to the school and the participating parents or grandparents. The Toyota Family Literacy Program began 20 years ago with parents of preschoolers, and it has developed into a K-3 model. It aims to address the needs of the estimated 30 million adults in the United States who have basic or below-basic literacy skills and are caretakers of children from birth to age 8, says Sharon Darling, the founder and president of the National Center for Family Literacy. The center, based in Louisville, Ky., manages the program for Toyota.
“Their children make up the bottom of the achievement gap for the most part,” Ms. Darling said. “If we want to turn that around, we need to look at educating both generations.”
Reading at Home
Ms. Bond, 24, quit school in 11th grade. Since she became a participant in the literacy program in September, she has been furthering her own education and also learning “how the teacher teaches, so that I can pick up where the teacher left off,” she said.
From Damairee’s teacher, Kathy Markus, Ms. Bond has picked up the titles of books that are appropriate to read to preschoolers, as well as some discipline techniques, such as requiring a short timeout instead of spanking.
With 369 students who are primarily from low-income African-American families, Moten at Wilkinson Elementary is a bit of an anomaly among schools participating in the program. The Toyota Family Literacy Program mostly serves schools with high populations of Hispanic or immigrant families.
Moten’s principal, Margaret Stephens-Aliendre, says the Toyota Family Literacy Program is the most effective tool her school has for getting parents involved. “It builds the parents’ self-esteem,” she said, “They learn how to help their children at home.”
Results of a two-stage survey of 20 participants in last year’s program at Moten showed that all parents reported reading to their children at least three times a week in a follow-up survey taken at the end of the school year, while none had reported reading to their children in the initial survey they took when they enrolled. Classroom teachers reported in a postsurvey that the children of participating parents showed significant increases in reading levels, compared with a presurvey.
The Toyota program reports similar results on average for its programs in 52 other schools across the country from which it collected data last year.
Heather B. Weiss, the founder and director of the Harvard Family Research Project, said that research shows that how well families support early literacy is a strong predictor of school readiness for children. She credits the National Family Literacy Center with having developed one of the earliest two-generational family-literacy programs.
But she said the “urgent challenge” for the Toyota Family Literacy Program, and others like it, is to prove effectiveness with more-rigorous evaluations.
The Toyota program aims to support academic achievement at a school that is a consolidation of two schools—Moten Elementary and Wilkinson Elementary—and is in the second year of “restructuring” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Moten Elementary, which served grades 4-6 before the merger, failed to make adequate yearly progress in reading for five years in a row. Ms. Stephens-Aliendre, previously the principal of the pre-K-3 Wilkinson Elementary, was tapped by the District of Columbia school system to lead the consolidated school.
Time for Classes
Toyota generally provides grants of $275,000 over three years in a community for three literacy programs. The Moten at Wilkinson program, the only District of Columbia program Toyota funds now, costs the car maker about $2,500 annually for each participating family.
Low educational attainment is common among parents of children attending Moten at Wilkinson, according to Ms. Stephens-Aliendre. She said she can’t think of any parent who has finished college, though some have associate’s degrees. Many, she said, haven’t graduated from high school, and she estimates that about 75 percent of the parents of the school’s children are not working and receive public assistance.
That means that many also have time to attend classes and support their children’s learning during the day.
Salena A. Taylor, 30, and Hannah L. Rodgers, 27, are among the 20 active participants in the Moten at Wilkinson literacy program. Both are single mothers who dropped out of school in 11th grade and joined the program around the start of this school year.
On a recent winter day, Madge Gonzalez, a full-time adult educator in the program, taught the parents an hourlong lesson on reading comprehension, pointing out how to find the main idea in a couple of articles. She then had them look up on computers expectations for reading used by District of Columbia schools for the grade level of their children.
That same morning, all parents or grandparents spent about 45 minutes in the classrooms of their children or grandchildren.
Ms. Rodgers confidently read a story, Daddy Goes to Work, by Jabari Asim, to her son Elijah and his classmates. She showed illustrations to the 2nd graders as she turned the pages. She read with expression, and sometimes added her own remarks. When the parent in the story grabbed his daughter’s hand, for example, Ms. Rodgers said, “I do that with my kids all the time—grab them quickly, like we are flying.”
After the story was over, Ms. Rodgers asked the children comprehension questions.
Sharing Poetry Lessons
Down the hall, in the class of 7-year-old Darryl, Ms. Taylor’s son, his teacher explained the meaning of Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred.” Ms. Taylor sat quietly next to her son and listened. The teacher said, for example, that she had always wanted to get a Ph.D., but she attained only a master’s degree and is now busy working and raising a family. But she said she still has a dream of continuing her education.
In Damairee’s prekindergarten classroom, where Ms. Bond was observing, children were learning “winter words.” Ms. Markus used a rubber band to show the children how words can be stretched out, so their separate sounds can be heard. When Ms. Markus stretched the rubber band, she also stretched out the words “sled” and “boots.”
After the parents returned to the family-literacy room, Evans Moore, a part-time parent instructor for the program, led a discussion about what the parents had seen their children learning. Each parent read aloud a description of literacy skills targeted to the grade of the child they had just observed.
In prekindergarten, Ms. Bond read, children are expected to learn letters of the alphabet and that sounds go together to form words. Mr. Moore suggested ways that parents can support literacy development.
He said that not only can preschoolers benefit from hearing their parents tell them stories, but they also can learn from songs. He led parents in singing the “Eensy Weensy Spider.” Then he sang with them the first verse of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.”
Ms. Bond chimed in with leading a second verse, “The baby on the bus goes ‘wah, wah, wah.’ ”
By now, everyone was smiling or chuckling.
“To us as adults, it seems silly. We laugh, but there’s some learning going on,” Mr. Moore said.
Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as At D.C. School, Parents and Children Learn Side by Side