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Parents reading aloud to children helps language skills, education
Program partners with United Way, First Baptist Church to help kids read in English and Spanish
Leo Dominguez, 5, opens a book Monday afternoon during the Read Aloud program at Versailles Apartments in Gainesville.

By the numbers

  • Children who aren’t reading well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
  • Only 33 percent of America’s fourth-graders read proficiently.
  • One in three fourth-graders scores below “basic” in reading on national assessments.
  • Some 50 percent of poor students scored below “basic” in reading, compared with 21 percent of their better-off peers.
  • 54 percent of black students and 51 percent of Hispanic students scored below “basic” in reading, compared with 23 percent of white students.

Source: United Way

Once a week since the summer, Ruth Demby has lugged boxes of children’s books to Norwood Apartments on Cleveland Highway with a handful of volunteers in tow. Armed with a curriculum outlined by the United Way, the associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Gainesville meets with mothers and small children for a singular goal: to ensure every child is read to by a parent by the time he or she enter kindergarten.

“The parent really is the child’s first teacher,” Demby said. “When you look at how many hours a child spends at home with a parent, it’s just huge compared to how many hours they’re actually in school.”

This mission of Demby’s and her fellow volunteers is the Read Aloud program. She was inspired to create the program for the youngest children after working with Promising Futures, an after-school program at First Baptist that works with children from the Norwood Apartments community who come from predominantly non-English-speaking homes.

“As we worked with (the kids at Promising Futures), I kept realizing that we needed to back it up,” the 60-year-old woman said. “There are kids who start kindergarten and first grade who are so far behind, they don’t seem to ever really catch up.”

The number of participants ranges from six to 40 children and parents at the weekly meeting, which is held outside during warm weather or inside an apartment. The families read together for 15 minutes in English and Spanish as well as sing and dance.

But the benefits of Read Aloud not only affect the participants but influence the volunteers as well.

“What I found was it was just some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done,” Demby said.

Parental influence

Nancy Bautista, a paid intern at First Baptist, has been working with the Norwood Read Aloud group for several months. The Gainesville woman, who came to the United States from Mexico when she was 10, has a unique insight into what it means to work extra hard to achieve success in a new country. She worked full time while pursuing a business degree at the University of North Georgia. She earned her degree in 2009.

And now the mother of two children knows the importance of reading to a young child and stimulating his or her mind from her own son, Kevin. He learned to read and write at day care and by watching his mother complete her homework while she was in college.

“(Kevin) actually got to skip kindergarten because he already knew how to completely read in kindergarten,” the 29-year-old mother said. “When (my daughter) was born, we saw the importance of starting them early and getting them ready.”

Bautista translates as the mothers take turns explaining the effect the Read Aloud program has had on them.

A mother of two, Paloma Contreras says her oldest daughter — who can’t read yet — uses the program’s books to make up a story for her younger brother at home.

Elena Dominguez said her daughter reads to her husband.

“She tells her daddy, ‘You have to sit so I can read you a story,’” she said.

Reading is not the only skill the children acquire. They learn to sit still, “at least for a little while,” Demby said, adding many children struggle with that trait upon entering kindergarten.

“She gets tired,” another mother said, referring to how excited her toddler daughter gets for the Read Aloud meetings. “She likes to read.”

And more good comes from the Read Aloud meetings than academic achievement and economic potential. In between learning the value of stimulating young minds, a motherly community forms.

“These women, if they have questions about raising a child, some of them don’t have any family members around,” Bautista said. “They begin to form friendships. Their kids begin to be friends at an early age, and they can grow together and watch out for each other.”

Angeles Apolinar, a resident of Versailles Apartments, regularly opens her home to the mothers and babies even though her own children, ages 6 and 8, don’t attend the Read Aloud get-togethers when school is in session.

Through a translator, Apolinar said she would recommend the Read Aloud group, “Particularly (to) the moms, so they can spend more time with their children.”

Apolinar brings some of the Read Aloud books to her son, who was behind in reading, and he’s now showing a greater interest in the craft.

Impact of reading

Statistics support Demby and the United Way’s claim that being read to as a young child can have an invaluable impact on the duration of his or her life.

According to the United Way, children who aren’t reading on level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Only 33 percent of America’s fourth-graders read on the appropriate level. At present, the statistics don’t bode well for the future of America’s children.

“We also know that oftentimes, prison systems are predicting how many jail cells they’re going to need by looking at how many kids are not reading on grade level by third grade,” Demby said.

The odds especially are not in favor of children who come from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Half of all students from low socioeconomic circumstances scored below “basic” on a recent national reading assessment, compared to 21 percent of their better-off peers. A whopping 54 percent of African-American students and 51 percent of Hispanic students also scored below “basic,” as opposed to 23 percent of their white peers, according to statistics from United Way.

Demby said this is why volunteer efforts such as the Read Aloud program are necessary, as opposed to waiting for a federally funded program to step in.

“Day by day, we’re needing a more skilled workforce,” said Demby, who is the United Way’s Read Learn Succeed program coordinator. “Increasingly, the work that is available calls for literacy skills, even post-high-school education. So we just can’t wait.”

Demby is always looking for more volunteers, especially bilingual volunteers, and businesses to partner with the program and donate incentives for the mothers and children to accomplish their 15-minute goal every day. Incentives include certificates to restaurants and other businesses in town.

The mothers and their children earn the certificate by reading together for 15 minutes every day of the week and documenting it on a worksheet.

Change in the children

In the time Demby and Bautista have been working with Read Aloud, both have already witnessed the kids make invaluable strides.

“I noticed when I first started, some of (the children) didn’t even like to get near the boxes (of books),” Bautista said. “Now I bring the boxes and put them down, and they run and get books and open them and pretend they’re reading.”

Even some of the youngest kids are passing pivotal milestones thanks to the stimulation from Read Aloud.

“Some of them are saying words,” Bautista said. “It makes me happy to see that love (of reading) that’s going to last them all through their lives.”

Whether the impact is personal, educational or economic, it can’t be denied a change is occurring.

“I just feel like this skill is so essential for the kids, for the parents, for the economic future of Gainesville and Hall County, that it’s just worth this kind of effort,” Demby said. “It’s been a joy for everybody that’s participated.”