A familywide approach to promoting literacy

Even Start uses education, parent-child activities to boost reading among low-income households


As her daughter, Ashley, nestled on her lap, Ilana Flores read to the 4-year-old, a bouncy girl with long brown hair and sparkling earrings.

"When I was little, I lived with my grandmother, uncles and a cousin," Flores read out loud. "Now you are little, and you live with your mom, dad and two brothers."

In a classroom at Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia yesterday, Flores wasn't the only parent reading an autobiographical book to a child. Other mothers and fathers read books made for their children to celebrate Family Literacy Day. The parents - part of Howard County's Even Start Family Literacy Program - wrote and illustrated books that compared their childhood with their children's.

"It's so neat for the children to see themselves in a book," said Deirdre Gonsalves, program manager of Even Start.

Yesterday's reading event is one of several activities sponsored by Even Start, a federally funded program that promotes literacy through adult education, day care programs, parenting workshops and interaction between parents and children.

The program serves low-income families with children ages 7 and younger. In many cases, adults work toward a General Educational Development (GED) or other diploma, or they learn English. Meanwhile, their young children are enrolled in preschool and kindergarten programs, where they get language and literacy education.

Howard's program works with several organizations and schools, including Howard Community College, Head Start and Cradlerock Children's Center, to provide services to families.

"The program gives them support to pursue their goals," Gonsalves said. "In turn, we get to help them help their children with homework, school readiness."

Across Maryland, 12 school districts have Even Start programs, according to the state Department of Education. Since Howard County's program started in March 2004, it has helped about 74 adults and 96 children, Gonsalves said.

In the past year, up to eight adults have earned their external diplomas through Howard Community College.

This year, 10 Howard County families are enrolled in the 12-week fall program. There also are spring, summer and evening sessions. (The current funding of $202,000, however, does not cover an evening session this year.)

Although the need for Even Start is increasing, the program is on shaky ground, said Anne Yenchko, director of Howard's Judy Center, which oversees Even Start. President Bush proposed this year to eliminate the program, and its budget is before Congress.

Yenchko said 11 percent of Howard County's adult population is reading at the minimal level, according to data by the Maryland Education Department.

"One out of every 10 adults could benefit from a program like this," said Yenchko, noting that about 20 people are on a waiting list for an evening program once funding becomes available.

Sitting on the classroom floor at Owen Brown Interfaith Center, 4-year-old Jesse Perez flipped through his book illustrated with photos of him and his family. His mother, Manuela Martinez, 34, of Columbia, read to him.

"When I was little, I played with dolls. Now you are little and you play with blocks.

"When I was little, at bedtime, I said my prayers. Now you are little, and at bedtime, you like to read some books."

Martinez, who came to the United States from Mexico 12 years ago, said she enrolled in the program "for me, my life and my children." Her goal is to earn an adult external diploma, which assesses academic and life skills.

Meanwhile, Martinez, who has three older children, said she was learning to communicate with teachers and helping her children with their homework.

Besides continuing education, the adults in the program take parenting workshops, where they help their children prepare for school and learn to advocate for them.

"It's really important to have parent involvement through the school years, especially in the short window of time prior to kindergarten," Gonsalves said. "That's when a lot of language development is happening and social skills are being created."

For Dasha Greene, 17, the program is helping her become a more patient mother of 2-year-old Totiana while her daughter is picking up skills of her own.

"She loves books," Greene said of Totiana, who has enrolled in a preschool program at Cradlerock Children's Center. "Her attention span has gotten longer. For me, they have helped a lot."

At the end of Flores' story, Ashley learned that she and her mother have several things in common. Both love a Spanish song called "Three Little Pigs," and they both pray before they go to bed.

They also have differences, including their favorite foods. Flores' is quesadillas, while Ashley loves chicken.

Besides the book project, Flores said Even Start has helped her feel connected with her children, including two older boys, and their education.

"I'm learning English," said Flores, who grew up in Mexico City and is working toward a diploma and U.S. citizenship. "The letters the schools send me, I understand it now. I fill out the forms and papers. I don't need another person."

And she could help her fifth-grade son, Bryan, with homework.

"This program helps me, and I can help my son in math," she said. "I understand more."


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