By Christopher Smith
Regardless of where they’ve come from or if they are here legally, Tracy Bryant says Hispanic children “deserve” to learn to read English.
That’s one of the reasons she drives from Ringgold to volunteer for the Readers to Leaders program (www.facebook.com/R2LDaltonWhitfield), which began a year ago.
The program offers reading programs inside local schools, at the Dalton-Whitfield County Library and the Mack Gaston Community Center, among other places, to make sure young children are getting sufficient exposure to words.
“It’s time for people to be adults (about the Hispanic population),” Bryant said. “You can’t fault these kids for being here. They’re here. Let’s deal with it. I think even though you may feel like they don’t belong here and we could do better without them as a community — well — that’s the easy way out. And it’s selfish.
“Readers to Leaders is really going to help our economy and community if we can teach more Hispanic children to read English. Otherwise, they grow up and cannot contribute to our workforce in a meaningful way.”
Because subjects like math, science and history are meaningless to a student who cannot read, said Melissa Lu with the Archway Partnership, a University of Georgia program that community leaders used to find resources to start Readers to Leaders.
Lu said the program — which had a startup cost of $1.5 million derived from several community agencies — has been designed into three main facets.
Literacy Collaborative brings in literary coaches to help teachers make sure struggling students get the reading and writing skills they need. Dalton Public Schools has used it off-and-on for a decade, while Whitfield County Schools adopted it in 2012.
Reach Out and Read is a national program that gives pediatric offices books to give to children who visit. That began locally this year.
Lu said she’s most excited about the Lunch and Learn program that started this summer and offers free lunches to families at local elementary schools while teaching literacy at the same time.
The need to saturate the local community with books became clear after two years of anecdotal research, Lu said.
“We kept hearing from everyone that the workforce was the number one issue in this county,” she said. “We heard people needed jobs but were not always qualified for them. There was a real need for literacy at a young age here because not every kid gets exposed to reading the way they should.”
Especially if their parents don’t speak English, Bryant said.
“It would be like me trying to teach my son how to read Spanish never speaking it myself,” she said. “If I tried to do that, I’d fail.”
Marlen Rodriquez, a United Way AmeriCorps volunteer coordinator working with the program, said she’s seen Bryant’s observation firsthand.
“You do see Hispanic parents coming to these things a lot because they feel like they can’t help their child because they cannot speak English or teach it,” Rodriquez said. “My parents did not speak English and you do lose that context, especially over the summer because kids are out of school and don’t get the reading skills they need at home.”
That’s why Readers to Leaders added the Lunch and Learn program.
“Reading is a foundation skill that needs to be mastered,” Pam Partain, a Dalton State College official who helps oversee the program, said. “The ability to read means the ability to critically think. We want to see our children educated to meet the job demands of the future. The benefits that come out of having a better educated community are endless.”
Partain said that goes for all students, regardless of race or background.
“We want to reach back to our youngest population,” she said. “We want to work with them so by the time they are school age they are good and ready to learn.”
Partain, Rodriquez and Lu said the third grade is an important benchmark for children. If students aren’t reading proficiently by then — on grade level — they are “on the track to drop out of school,” Partain said.
“We want to make sure that doesn’t happen,” she added. “It’s definitely a commitment.”
But is the commitment working?
Besides anecdotal information, Lu says they haven’t gauged the program’s success.
“Marlen brought it to the group’s attention that we don’t have a way to show how it’s working,” she said. “We’ll be using Archway to find resources to help us measure this to see if this community initiative is working.
“I myself can be a skeptic till I see things firsthand and I was overwhelmed on the emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving at our programs when I visited. We want to make sure our activity has an impact.”
Bryant said she’s seen the impact.
“These programs are huge,” she said. “Especially the summer programs. To kids, summer is a break. But those little minds have to have words in front of them. It’s so important. They still need to be reading even though they are not in school. I really hope this community gets behind the program.”