New America Media, News Feature, Vivian Po, Posted: Nov 27, 2011
LOS ANGELES — On a Thursday afternoon in early November, over 50 parents, mostly Latinos, packed a little classroom at Victoria Avenue Elementary in south Los Angeles, eager to learn about how they can help their children to read.
It was the 32nd such parent training workshop long-time educator Dale Petrulis had put together in the past seven weeks. Petrulis said she squeezed all the sessions into the beginning of the school year because she wanted parents to start reading to their children as soon as possible.
Petrulis is the Southern California regional manager for Bring Me A Book, a statewide nonprofit organization set up to promote reading as a way to strengthen the literary skills of California’s underserved children in schools.
During the 90 minute parental training at Victoria Avenue, Colleen Triesch, the organization’s regional training coordinator, demonstrated reading techniques and vocabulary building skills to parents. More importantly, she sent out a strong message that parents should make it a daily habit to read with their kids.
“They assumed that’s the school responsibility,” said Triesch, a bilingual 25-year educator in child development in Southern California. “They never have the opportunity to understand their role in the education system as partners.”
Some parents worried that their English was not good enough to read with their children. But Triesh assured them that they could always read in their native language because what was important was to build their kids’ brain capacity to learn.
According to a research on preschool enrollment among Latino children in California, conducted by The Wealth Research Organization, only 72 percent of Latino parents read to their children more than three times a week, compared to 87 percent of white parents.
Couple that with the fact that only about half of Latino children in the state have access to preschool education, and you find that many of them are actually entering kindergarten with a lack of basic pre-literacy skills.
In Los Angeles, the challenge is amplified with its huge population of Latino children. In the 2010-2011 academic year, there were over a million (1,013,169) Latino children enrolled in the public K-12 system, which is one-sixth of the total number of students in the state’s public education system. One out of eight of them are English learners.
“We know that when children are not ready for kindergarten, they struggle in school pretty much all the way through, ” observed Petrulis, who was an educator for 40 years before she retired and joined the organization.
Petrulis’s concerns were reflected in Latino achievement data in recent years, which suggested that the gap tends to grow wider as they get older. In 2010, 33 percent of Latino students scored in the proficient level in English on the California Standards Test (CST). Although this was a spike from 18 percent in 2004, it still showed a big disparity compared to their Asian and white counterparts, who scored 70 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
Petrulis understood that Latino parents cared about their children’s education, wanted to see them go to college but just did not know where to start. The training program targeted parents whose children were the youngest, and most likely least prepared for school. They were the transitional kindergarteners in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
Transitional kindergarten is a pilot program created by LAUSD last year to prepare for the implementation of the 2012 Kindergarten Readiness Act. The state legislature passed SB 1381 last year to move the kindergarten birthday cut-off date from December 2 to September 1, over the course of three years (moving one month up each year), starting next year.
California is one of four states in the nation that has a very late kindergarten cut-off date, and the purpose of the Act is to ensure children enter kindergarten at an older age, which often translates to greater school readiness.
The law also mandated that each district offer a one-year pre-k program, called transitional kindergarten, for those whose birthdays fall after the cut-off date. The program is also seen as an opportunity to provide less prepared children a slower-paced learning environment before they enter kindergarten that is driven by rigorous standards.
“We embraced the [transitional kindergarten] program to catch a large number of youngsters early,” said Petrulis.
Last year she conducted parent training at all 36 transitional kindergarten classrooms piloted by LAUSD. This year, the district expanded to 83 transitional kindergarten classrooms, and Petrulis is expanding her training to 67 classrooms, benefiting more parents.
Prior to the training, Dad Steven Aguirre said he tried to read to his daughter regularly but found she would get distracted within a few minutes. He said he learned some useful techniques through the workshop, such as acting the story out, emphasizing on words and appropriate pauses because keeping his daughter’s attention was a continual battle for him even though he knew she liked reading.
After the training, every parent was given a book in either English or Spanish so they could always have at least one child age-appropriate book at home for reading.
It’s not that easy for parents to get to the library, especially for low-income parents who work multiple jobs or have no car to take their kids to local libraries. For this very reason, after the training, each school was given a case of 30 books to add to its library.
When resources are limited, Triesch said, parents could always read the same book again in different ways, such as creating new stories using the pictures, discuss the values behind the stories, or ask their kids to create their own stories. Triesch believes reading time is also family bonding time, so parents can also add in singing and sharing family photos and stories to make it more fun for their kids.
“It is an obligation but it’s (also) a joy,” said Petrulis. “When you read to them, talk to them or show them family pictures, it’s really impacting the youngsters’ sense of self, their sense of ability to learn the language and to enjoy reading.”