Library program helps big and little kids alike

Woodlawn: Teen-agers in need of an after-school activity help children discover the joy of books.

February 17, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Justin Smith, a lanky 18-year- old with light-brown dreadlocks, is scrunched into a child-sized chair at the Woodlawn library holding up a paperback book: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in The Case of the Surfing Secret.

The series, about sleuthing twin sisters, is not his usual choice of reading material, but it is a favorite of Rachel Brown's, 9, and she is Justin's audience for the day. He reads the book aloud while other teen-agers nearby point to picture books, play with puppets and read stories to younger children who came to the library with their parents.

The teen-agers are part of the Baltimore County Public Library branch's Journey Into Reading after-school program: a thrice-weekly reading initiative intended to increase children's enjoyment of books, provide role models in older students who like to read, and give parents free time to browse.

The readers enjoy it, too. "We don't get paid, but it's always a good feeling," Smith, a junior at Towson High School, says of the reading program. "You are getting involved in [the children's] education."

Justin earned high marks from his reading partner.

"He put a lot of enthusiasm into it," says Rachel, a fourth-grader at John Paul Regional Catholic School who visited the library with her mother and younger sister to research a school project.

Journey Into Reading is one of several afternoon events in the library's Super Teens Program, which is building connections between the library and youths in the community.

Near Woodlawn High School, the library was flooded each day with teen-agers, says Contobia Adams, after-school program coordinator for the branch. "We wanted to better utilize the kids that came in," she says.

In October 2000, the library applied for a portion of the $1.26 million that Baltimore County received from the federal government for after-school programs. Woodlawn's program started in the summer last year with 20 laptop computers, academic software and online homework help.

Those elements and one-on-one tutoring continue to be part of the program, and they will form the basis for an annual summer session focusing on academic assistance. But Adams quickly realized it was important to think more broadly about what students need.

A high percentage of young people in the Woodlawn area live in foster care or group homes, says Adams. Many live with family members or caregivers other than their parents. Often parents and guardians are at work until early evening and do not want their children to be home unsupervised. "This is where [the teens] feel comfortable, this is where they feel at home," says Adams. "Where else would these young people be going?"

To serve these young people better, in the fall the Woodlawn library used $67,000 of its after-school program funding to create Super Teens, a series of programs offered every weekday after school.

Multi-session seminars about cultural diversity, conflict resolution, anger management, leadership and other self-development topics have been presented. Workshops have addressed music, poetry, rap and modeling, and the library has offered classes about preparing for college and careers.

Reading plays a role throughout the library's after-school activities. For example, older students get help using library books and resources for their school assignments, and in Super Teen workshops they use other written materials such as recipes, college catalogs and business plans.

Now, the Journey Into Reading program allows high school students to contribute to another library mission: increasing literacy among its youngest patrons and getting children hooked on reading early.

That - plus daily snacks, monthly social events, a talent show and other activities - keeps 165 young people from more than 10 high schools involved throughout the year. On average, 35 to 40 teen-agers participate each afternoon.

"For a lot of people, it stops them from getting in trouble," says Antonio Howard, a 10th-grader at Woodlawn High School.

He became involved with Super Teens after a rough period in his life which included spending a year in a group home. Now that he is turning his life around, he says, he enjoys the activities and the support of the program. "It's a positive environment, there's nothing negative about it," says Howard, who lives with his grandfather. At the same time, the presenters "are real about life, they don't sugarcoat it,"

"I like that it teaches us everything that school wouldn't teach us," says Staci Ross, 15, of Randallstown. She lists topics such as dealing with relationships, solving conflicts and managing money. "I think it's going to help me be a better adult."

The students support each other. "We're family," says Howard, a rap artist in his free time. "We're a group, we stay together as a group."

The Woodlawn library "is like a community center in addition to a library," says Justin's father, Stuart Smith. He thinks that Justin, after participating in the reading program, has internalized the benefits for the younger children and started reading more. He also is pleased that the program provides positive role models.

Says Justin, "When people come here, they can be whatever they want to be."

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