Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Survival of the Book means survival of reading, right?

Who says we aren't a people who cares about others? I know that in New England where the weather is cold, the people are colder, and "good fences make good neighbors," we often get the rap for being totally unfeeling and disinterested in the plight and welfare of others. We give less to charity than most other regions of the country (a fact that is in dispute by the Boston Foundation) but does that mean we are heartless? Hell no. In today's Boston Globe is a story that needs wider distribution. Retired women are leaving the warmth and safety of their homes to help the next generation to read. This is real.
Even when the sidewalks are slick with ice, the retired women make their way to the small brick schoolhouse in Roxbury. A few walk or drive their cars; others take door-to-door van service provided to the elderly and the disabled by the MBTA.

The women are on a mission to ensure the pupils at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School learn how to read, but they also provide some much-needed nurturing for a group of students who often come from some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

"They come in snowstorms - Now, that's commitment," said C. Sura O'Mard, the school's principal, who witnesses such scenes unfold from her office window. "We are out there trying to make sure they don't slide on the ice."

Too often we spend time debating whether the Kindle is the future of books or whether print is obsolete or whether publishing will survive. What we rarely discuss here is whether or not reading will survive. It is certainly under attack (the recent NEA statistics notwithstanding). These elderly women, in concert with the National Experience Corps program, are helping to give the gift and wonder of reading to young people all over Boston.
The program, which trains adults 55 years and older to tutor children in reading, was first adopted by a few Boston schools about 10 years ago. Recently, it has seen a resurgence in popularity as the district confronts stagnant reading and English scores for elementary school pupils.
Now, I don't know about you but I bemoan the lack of reading all the time. I am consistently stunned by the number of people who don't read even one book a year. I have written elsewhere on Survival of the Book that not everyone needs to read but children sure as hell need to know how to read. Remember that Mark Twain taught us that "the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." Well, these youngsters of Roxbury will be able to read those "good books" soon enough. These women have answered the call to arms and have helped the Boston school system instill a love of literature in our young people. How has it worked so far?
Yesterday, a national study found that students enrolled in programs like these in Boston; New York City; and Port Arthur, Texas; made 60 percent more progress in word deciphering and reading comprehension on standardized tests than peers who were not enrolled in the program.
That is pretty good. Admittedly, there have been some problems integrating the program with Special Education students but a minor setback isn't a reason to rejoice. The Atlantic Philanthropies, the company which paid for the study showing both progress for many students and some small problems for Special Education students, said that the program in Boston is also beneficial for the seniors doing the tutoring.
By providing them with an opportunity to get out of their homes and join a social network, the experience helped boost their mental health and reduce their everyday aches and pains...
Ah, the power of community service and the power of reading. It turns out that this tutoring project is good for both tutor and student. The student learns how to read and the tutor is rewarded by interaction with young people, making a difference in our community, as well as feeling valuable to our wider culture. However, as with everything else the jerky bankers on Wall Street have ruined, the program is having some budget problems which will be felt next year.
Such connections could become rarer in Boston next year, as Generations Inc. grapples with a decrease in charitable giving that probably will cause it to scale back the number of schools it serves. The program has a budget of about $2 million, which covers such things as training programs and $185 monthly stipends that about a third of the volunteers receive.
If you are curious about Experience Corps in your city, go to their website and see if they have an active program up and running where you live. In a program where everyone wins-the students, the retirees, the society-what else can be said? Let's let the principal of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School have the last word:
"The program has been quite a blessing for us," said C. Sura O'Mard, the principal. "It's not just an outside group coming in. The women become part of the fabric of the school. I see them at literacy nights and the Christmas party. . . . And the expectations they have for children in reading are just as high as those set by teachers."
And that, gentle readers, is how reading-how books-survive.

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