Summer program a ‘booster’ for kindergarten preparedness

People walk past the main branch of the Evanston Public Library on Sept. 20, 2011. The ABC Boosters program, a 10-week summer program organized to prepare young children for kindergarten, was launched in the summer of 2012.

Daily file photo by Kaitlin Svabek

People walk past the main branch of the Evanston Public Library on Sept. 20, 2011. The ABC Boosters program, a 10-week summer program organized to prepare young children for kindergarten, was launched in the summer of 2012.

Manuel Rapada, Assistant City Editor

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Nearly three dozen young children worked with a host of 14- to 17-year-olds this summer to build basic reading skills through a collaborative pilot program.

An anonymous group’s $50,000 contribution to the Evanston Community Foundation for an early childhood literacy project brought representatives from the foundation, Evanston Public Library, Youth Job Center and Evanston-Skokie District 65 together.

The result: the 10-week summer program ABC Boosters,  held at two Evanston community centers, staffed by local teenagers and designed by library staff and teachers. The early literacy program targeted 3- and 4-year-olds who did not receive formal preschool education.

Willard Elementary School kindergarten teacher Maria Torres said many students enter their first day of school without knowing the letters of the alphabet or how to write their names.

“As a kindergarten teacher, I knew some of the things I wasn’t seeing, and I knew some of the things they could focus on,” Torres said.

Together with fellow teacher Lara Galicia, Torres developed a curriculum and assessments that focus on letter recognition and sounds.

Children would “sign in,” allowing staff to monitor those taking part in the program while giving participants an opportunity to write their names, Torres said. Students and teenage “boosters” also played with magnetic letters, and the teenagers read to other children at the parks adjacent to the community centers, which served as free lunch sites this summer.

Hundreds turned out to the story time events in the parks in addition to the 35  people who formally participated in the program, said Rick Kinnebrew, EPL children’s outreach librarian.

Each organization involved in shaping ABC Boosters brought its strengths to the program, from finding “really good teens” to developing curriculum, Kinnebrew said.

“Everybody was invested in it,” he said. “You find a lot of that in Evanston. The bad side of community investment is that everybody does something. There’s not a lot of coordination.”

The Youth Job Center selected 12 “boosters” from a pool of nearly 40 students, said Jessica Wingader, CORE employment counselor, in an e-mail. Some “boosters” identified education or childcare as career goals and were chosen based on their experiences working with children.

Although Torres was initially a little hesitant about teenagers handling this responsibility, she said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the performance of the 12 teens involved.

Marybeth Schroeder, the Evanston Community Foundation’s vice president for programs, said the teens were treated like “rockstars.”

This year, ECF gave $20,000 in grants to the EPL and Youth Job Center for ABC Boosters. ECF intends on funding the program and its partners next year, Schroeder said in a follow-up e-mail. ABC Boosters met the foundation’s challenge to have “every child ready for kindergarten, every youth ready for work,” Schroeder said.

With the program targeting such young students, Torres said, it is too early to tell if the experience has made a difference.

Some summer programs ended before children could take post-assessments, leaving only a small percentage of students left to be tested, she said. Among the students who were assessed after the program, letter recognition increased at differing levels.

ABC Boosters also wrote essays about their experiences in the program. In an excerpt provided by Wingader, one student initially thought that the kids participating would not respond to learning during the summer.

Four weeks into the program, the “booster” wrote that the kids were enjoying the program.

“Secretly, kids at any age love being read to, even when they can read,” the teenager wrote. “It’s a pretty amazing thing to see.”

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