This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On a March afternoon, 8-year-old Jakai Rhoades and his mother, Ebony Wilkie, began tackling his homework.
“What does this word look like?” Wilkie asked her son, a 3rd grader at nearby Blaine Elementary School. “It’s a compound word—two words together. Do you see?”
“Spaceship,” he answered, correctly.
“Rumble … rumble … ROOAAARRRR,” read Jakai. “The rocket goes up into …” He stumbled on the next word. But his mom was at the ready, pointing upwards again and again, offering Jakai a really big hint.
He tried again, reading, “The rocket goes up into … space!”
Yes! Jakai was pleased, and so was Wilkie.
In this household in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, learning to read is a joint venture.
For Jakai, the effort means extra time spent delving into storybooks – as much as an hour in the afternoon after school and 15 minutes at bedtime.
And Wilkie has put in extra effort too. Last summer and again this winter, she attended parent workshops at Blaine to acquire some of the same skills that teachers use in the classroom. She learned the basics of how children learn to read – as well as some of the stumbling blocks.
“Some kids read, but they don’t understand what they’ve read. So we’ve worked on helping him comprehend what he’s reading,” Wilkie said.
“Jakai went from not reading to now reading on a 2nd-grade level. He’s made great progress,” his mother said.
Training the trainers
Enlisting parents as reading coaches is the linchpin innovation of a remedial reading initiative called the Springboard Collaborative. Springboard, created by Alejandro Gac-Artigas, has run summer reading programs in charter schools the past three years and expanded to include four District schools last summer.
“Parents are the greatest natural resource in education,” Gac-Artigas said, “and what’s crazy is that this resource is almost entirely untapped in high-poverty communities.”
This winter, Springboard ran a pilot program at Blaine from February into April to train teachers to work with the families of struggling readers. In all, the pilot involved five teachers, 35 students and their families.
In the pilot, teachers wrote up an action plan for each child and reviewed the plan and goals with the parent. Every second week, the teachers led hour-long workshops for the parents. In the alternate week, teachers got training in communicating and coaching the families. As in the summer program, Springboard offered books and supplies to the families as incentives.
Parental involvement is wholly embraced by educators, but parents are seldom enlisted in the task of teaching literacy beyond the time-honored adage: Read to your kids.
Springboard asks much more by teaching parents how to build the reading, vocabulary, and comprehension skills of their children outside of the traditional school day. The program also holds parents accountable during the duration of the program with at-home assignments and attendance requirements. Last summer, parents at four District schools averaged 93 percent attendance at Springboard’s weekly workshops.
Springboard boasts of dramatic reading gains and big ambitions: to narrow and even close the achievement gap for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Research on the subject would appear to bolster Springboard’s approach. A 2006 review of the research by the National Institute for Literacy looked at family literacy interventions from kindergarten to 3rd grade and concluded that having parents teach specific literacy skills was two times more effective than listening to the child read, and six times more effective than encouraging parents to read to their children.
Efforts pay off
Wilkie is certain her efforts have had a big impact on Jakai’s reading skills. The books on the homework table were at the 2nd- and 3rd-grade level – far beyond what he could handle a year ago. And Jakai gets encouragement from his older brother, Karim Pressley, 10, a strong reader from an early age.
The Wilkie family has been reading nonstop since last summer, including the stretch after the summer program ended and before this school year started. Friends of the boys knocking at the door on this warm March afternoon were no match for their mom’s insistence that homework come first and leisure time later.
Jakai had not one but four storybooks to read that afternoon: Rockets and Spaceships, rated at a 2.9 level (or end of 2nd grade); Martin’s Big Words, rated 2.5; The Meanest Thing to Say by Bill Cosby, rated 2.2; and Jamaica’s Find, with a 3.2 rating.
That kind of mix, running easier to harder, makes sense to Jakai’s mother. Books that are easier to read reinforce skills; ones with more new, unknown words challenge him to figure out the word from the context of the story.
“Before the program, I was helping Jakai by reading books he enjoyed. But he couldn’t pronounce the words. With Springboard, they helped him with pronunciation, and so did I,” Wilkie said.
She also helped him learn words he didn’t know by putting them in a context he was familiar with, offering this example: “The word dirty – I would say go clean your ‘blank’ room, and he got it – your dirty room. That worked for him.”
This at-home effort has had an extra payoff.
“It was also worth my while because I got to learn more about my child. And I had a chance to interact with his teacher. Anything that helps my child learn, I’m all for it,” Wilkie said.
Karen Shanowski, a project manager with the Center for Schools and Communities in Camp Hill, Pa., said schools increasingly are looking at ways to engage families in their children’s learning. What is clear, she said, is that “family engagement is not an add-on; it’s an integral part of the learning process. And we’re seeing schools looking at new ways to connect with families.”
Such initiatives, she said, have evolved out of recognition that “parents are their children’s most influential teachers.”
Shileste Overton-Morris, a senior manager at the center, noted that out-of-school initiatives can engage parents in creative ways beyond “the parent-teacher conference or the PTA meeting” that is typical of many schools. What’s key, said Overton-Morris, is “communicating that message—that parents are teachers no matter where they are in the system, whether it’s home-school, charter or public. Parents are the primary teachers … and it’s very important that schools should be looking to engage parents in meaningful ways to ensure that the student succeeds in life.”
Books and more books
Like Wilkie, Enjoli Johnson attended Springboard workshops at Blaine last summer and again during the pilot to support the reading efforts of her three sons, Anthony Cindell, 11, in 5th grade, Zahmaar Brown, 7, in 1st grade, and Joseph Brown, 5, in kindergarten.
“First off, when they come to me with a book, I never turn them down,” said Johnson.
Teachers send home books, and friends stop by with more books. Johnson said that Joseph has had a harder time learning to read than his older brothers, and what she learned in the workshops has helped her work with her son. Plus, “he’s more encouraged to learn because he sees his older brothers reading.”
Johnson recalled that she grew up reading with her mother.
“She would fall asleep; I wouldn’t stop reading,” Johnson laughed. “I’m definitely a cheerleader for reading. I’m good in math, but I’m famous for reading.”
To read more about the Springboard approach, visit the website.