Literacy program is a family affair

March 16, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

Downstairs at the Jonestown Family Learning Center, 8-year-old Tyesha Robinson finished her homework by writing the months of the year, spelling new words and composing a clever poem that's an ode to candy.

Upstairs her grandmother, Catherine Goode, 52, marveled at the bTC poems of Maya Angelou and got tips on essay writing. Tyesha is in the third grade. Her grandmother hasn't been to school in 35 years.

Four days a week, they come to Jonestown Center, in the first block of S. High Street, for a new program that is teaching children, parents and grandparents to learn together.

The program is run by Baltimore Reads Inc., the Schmoke administration's literacy agency.

Baltimore Reads' other programs teach reading, writing and math to adults. But the Jonestown program -- like another in a West Baltimore elementary school -- is geared toward elementary school children and their families.

Leroy Young, program specialist for Baltimore Reads, said the program is trying to give parents the skills to help teach their children.

"We don't want parents to be passive players" in the education of their children, he said.

Last October, Baltimore Reads' staff began recruiting children from poor neighborhoods for the new after school program and asked their parents -- some of them high school dropouts -- to come along. Fifteen families participate in the Jonestown program.

David Miller, who oversees the Jonestown program, recruited families by contacting tenant councils at nearby public housing projects, passing out fliers in the neighborhood and talking to principals at local elementary schools.

On a recent day at Jonestown Center, Francis Scroggins was the first child to arrive. The fifth-grader regularly attends the tutoring class -- but he comes alone.

The staff hasn't been able to persuade Francis' mother to attend the sessions, even though she lives just across the street at Flag House Courts public housing project.

Nevertheless, Francis likes the center, where the teachers lavish attention on him.

He said he has been doing better in class at City Springs Elementary School since he started coming to Jonestown Center last fall.

"I can add, multiply, divide and read," he said proudly.

As teacher Elaine Daniels watched over his homework, Francis wrote a neat, upright script. He painstakingly formed each word in a group of sentences, erasing any misspellings and correcting them meticulously with his pencil.

Soon, Francis was joined by Tyesha Robinson, her brother, Reginald Goode, and their grandmother, Ms. Goode.

Ms. Goode and her grandchildren recently started coming to the program and travel several miles from East Baltimore to get there.

The childrens' mother can't come to the center because she works, so Ms. Goode decided to bring them.

"What they learn in school today helps me," she said.

Ms. Goode graduated from Douglass High School in 1959 and spent the past 20 years working as a shipfitter at Bethlehem Steel's Shipyard until she was laid off recently.

"I'm searching for a job now and am trying to brush up on my skills," she said.

As the children do their homework downstairs, Ms. Goode sits one floor above in Vera Boone's class for adults, some of whom are studying to take an exam for their GED, a general equivalency diploma.

Ms. Boone gives a dramatic reading to the class of two Maya Angelou poems: "Phenomenal Woman" and "Still I rise." Her commanding voice resonates off the high ceilings of the classroom.

She holds up Ms. Angelou's accomplishments -- including her writing of a poem for the last presidential inauguration -- as an example for all black woman.

The students -- five black women -- especially identify with Ms. Angelou's , "Still I rise," which ends, "Bringing gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise."

"It's a story of a woman who has lived a hard life and has risen above it," Ms. Boone told her class.

She urged them to write an essay when they go home that night.

But one student balked. "I have a job interview tonight," the young woman said.

"But you don't have a job interview tomorrow morning," Ms. Boone chided her.

During her classes Ms. Boone also encourages her students to read newspapers, register to vote and to learn the names of their elected representatives. Some have written letters to the mayor complaining about the poor conditions in public housing or about problems in the city's school system.

While the women read Ms. Angelou's poems, Tyesha Robinson sat at a child-size table downstairs, writing her own poetry as part of her homework:

"Candy is very sweet. It's a really good treat; I can eat it all the time; Of course, it's all mine," wrote the third-grader with braided hair and Minnie Mouse earrings.

Sitting at the table was first-grader Peachie Cutler. Her mother, Teresa Cutler, works next door at Jonestown Day Care Center. They live in Perkins Homes, a nearby public housing project.

Peachie came with arithmetic homework, but first wanted teacher's aide Thomas Coles to read her a book called, the "Doggonest Christmas."

Mr. Coles gently made a deal with her. He'd read the book when her homework was finished. They shook hands on the deal.

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