Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Not a Book in the House

Reflecting back, I realized my love of reading grew exponentially while sitting on some newspaper customer’s doorstep.  Whether I was perusing the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in the morning or the Saint Paul Dispatch at night I found myself immersed in short stories about a world I never knew existed.

Reading had never been a part of my life before I started a paper route.  Newspapers, magazines and books were luxuries my mother couldn’t afford. There was never any reading material in our house save for one book on Padre Pio. My mother probably bought that book out of guilt some Sunday morning after Mass.

About the same time I began a newspaper route my friend introduced me to our local library.  The first book I read was ‘The Enemy Below’ since I was fascinated with World War II; go figure. Then Tarzan, the Hardy Boys and western novels carried me into a world my imagination readily devoured.

Since that initial brush with the printed page, reading has always been an important part of my life.  There will never be enough time to read all the books I’ve got piled up around the house. We have libraries for the grandchildren here and there. Each has their own library in their rooms. Books matter to all of us.

So it was rather a shock to learn that a number of kids in my community have no books in their homes.  Like any suburb facing a growing diverse population, I found the disparity in reading levels simply amazing. Last summer my wife spearheaded a campaign to collect and distribute books for the local Head start and EL (English Learner) programs in Dakota County, Minnesota. She collected over four thousand books and, of course, they all passed through our house.

Photo Credit | Sun Newspapers

In Dakota County alone, over 1600 ELL students will use the books.  At the September 30th meeting of Apple Valley Rotary, District 196 Superintendent Jane Berenz spoke about the Reading Recovery Program in ISD 196 and how the intervention program has helped the literacy level of first graders.

She explained “the ELL Program in district 196 supports learners in acquiring the English they need in order to succeed in the classroom and beyond, in accordance with the State of Minnesota Guidelines and English Language Proficiency Standards.  Teachers who are fully certified in teaching English as a Second Language work with these ELL students at all ele-mentary, middle and high schools in the district.”

Ms. Berenz went on to explain that the ELL program develops English skills in reading, writing, and speaking, as well as the language of academic content.  The ELL staff is trained in the same best literacy practices as classroom teachers. She said the need for simple children’s books is critical for these students to practice their reading skills.

The program is working…and well.  Out of the twenty-three seniors who were in the English Learner program for last year, nineteen students were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college. Fourteen students were heading to a two-year college and five were going to a four-year institution of higher education.

Alongside the ELL program is the Head Start Program.  Laura Gilkey, Director of head Start for Scott, Carver, and Dakota County accepted over 2000 books for the Head Start Program. Head Start is a child development program that serves children from birth to age five years and their families. Head Start works closely with local school districts to provide early intervention services for children who need it.

And I thought four thousand books flowing through our house was a bit much last year.  Next summer my wife has a goal of collecting ten thousand books for those two programs. I can’t decide which size tent I’ll need to live in once that begins.

But to bring the world of reading to these children and open up a whole new world for them is a small price to pay for cramp quarters and books piled up in every corner of our house.  I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be transformed into another world of rolling seas, desert plateaus and the young boys down the block. I return to those worlds every chance I get.

And feel blessed to be able to create them myself for others to enjoy.

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