The Hunger Games. The Giver. To Kill A Mockingbird. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Ask a 6th grader what their favorite book is and you’re likely to hear any of those titles.
Rocio Apolonio remembers the book that was her favorite when she was a 6th grader, growing up in a small town on the outskirts of Puebla, Mexico. It was a workbook, filled with reading and grammar exercises, nothing quite as exciting as books about wizards. And yet, Rocio loved that book so much she committed it to memory.
It wasn’t the sort of book that most 6th graders would call their favorite, but then, it was the only book Rocio saw that entire year.
In Rocio’s town, children were only schooled until they finished 6th grade. Every year from when she started school until she was twelve, Rocio, the daughter of farmers, was given one book and one book only. And each year, she read it and reread it until she practically knew it by heart. Then she graduated from the 6th grade, and she stopped seeing books altogether.
Rocio grew up poor and there was violence in her home. She left Mexico for this country when she was just 17. When the father of her first daughter became abusive, she left him, and now raises her two daughters, on her earnings as a housekeeper. In spite of many obstacles, Rocio managed to get her GED 7 years ago.
Rocio loved reading and she knew she wanted to share that love of reading with her daughters. But she didn’t know exactly how. Three years ago, Rocio heard about an organization called Literacy Inc. (LINC). LINC shares strategies with families in high poverty neighborhoods on how to support reading at home. LINC’s programs are designed to do what every parent wants more than anything else; show them how to give their children a future better than their own. Mimi Lieber, LINC’s founder puts it this way, “We are Communitarians. We believe in the power of community. LINC’s programs are designed to empower families, to unlock the resources already present in every community. It is our mission to create a literacy rich environment which will lead to lasting change.”
Alarmingly, 3 out of 4 children living in poor neighborhoods leave third grade reading below grade level. Students who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade have a 35% greater likelihood of dropping out of high school. This is a crisis that translates into potential for a lifetime of struggle with enormous costs to society. LINC builds partnerships between families, educators and community stakeholders, creating neighborhood networks that surround children with books and fun, skill-building reading opportunities. LINC grows the early habits of reading that are vital to ensuring a child’s future success, in school and beyond.
LINC Coordinators are at the center of LINC’s approach to serving the literacy needs of young children and their families in New York City. LINC Coordinators often live in the community or have deep ties to the neighborhood they serve. They spend most of each week working with school, library and community partners to implement LINC’s full complement of programming. One example of LINC’s offering is a multi-week training workshop called V.I.P. (Very Involved Parents) Academy. VIP trains parents to become reading ambassadors in their neighborhoods. Parents are given tools to host their own reading celebrations.
Rocio completed that training and now, if you come to The Inwood Library any Tuesday at 4pm, you’ll see Rocio and her daughter Melanie, not only reading, but teaching a group of anywhere from six to twenty kids the skills they need to achieve literacy proficiency. Rocio begins by reading the group a book aloud in Spanish. Her thirteen year old daughter Melanie then reads the book in English. Together the two ask questions designed to strengthen reading comprehension skills.
Melanie’s sister, Rocio’s six year old daughter, Alexandra, is there too. Melanie is a natural reader, just like her mother. The kids love her and whenever she asks a question, hands are quickly raised. Alexandra, full of exuberant energy and spirit, had a hard time sitting still long enough to read a book. Rocio was delighted to see that her bi-lingual reading celebration in Inwood has dramatically increased Alexandra’s desire to read.
It’s a sacrifice for Rocio, because the commitment means that she can’t take house cleaning jobs that day. Every Tuesday afternoon is, in a real sense, money out of her pocket. And yet, Rocio says she’d never think of missing a group. It’s too important, to her and to her two daughters.
VIP Academy is only a part of LINC programming. Working in partnership with trusted members of communities, LINC helps educators develop strategies to involve every parent in their child’s literacy development. LINC’s Reading Partner Program pairs older students with younger kids for one on one reading time. It’s a special time for the younger kids and an empowering one for the older ones, who get to see what it can mean to contribute to a child’s development. Using already existing resources, LINC is a model of efficiency. And yet, there’s so much more that can be done.
“For us,” says Shari Levine, LINC’s Executive Director, “the joys and frustrations go hand in hand. We see women like Rocio and her two daughters and we know what parents can do for their children once they know how. That’s the joy. The frustration is knowing how to help, and not being able to reach everyone who could use that help.”