UIC's expanding literacy program makes gains for students

On a recent Wednesday morning, students in blue plaid uniforms crowd around their teacher at L.E.A.R.N. charter school as she begins a new book, "A Letter for Amy" by Ezra Jack Keats.

As they read, their teacher, Lilia Banda, pauses to talk about letters and addresses and introduces new vocabulary like "reflection" and "shadow."

It might sound like the average first- or second-grade classroom, but these children  are pre-schoolers -- three and four year olds, some of whom have only been in school a little over a month.

This literacy intensive class at L.E.A.R.N. Charter school in Lawndale is a part of the Early Reading First program, made possible by a grant through the University of Illinois in Chicago. UIC recently received another grant that will allow the program to expand into five new schools in the city.

“They’re the kids who get left behind in our education system,”  says William Teale, a professor of education at UIC and one of the grant administrators.

In 2007, UIC received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education that brough Early Reading First to three schools in the Chicago area, including L.E.A.R.N. This new grant, totaling around $3.8 million, will expand that program to five schools in Lower West Side, South Lawndale, Austin, and Gage Park in the Chicago Arch Diocese school system. 

UIC and the Archdiocese chose the schools based on need – the percentage of students qualifying for free lunch programs and the number considered “at-risk,” says Julie Ramski, program director for Early Childhood Education for the Chicago Archdiocese.

She says she hopes the program will have a great impact in the school communities.

“Some families can’t afford so many things these days,” Ramski says. “A copy of a book is a treasure. The grant will help us put good literature in the hands of children.”

The program focuses on making literacy a part of every activity in the classroom. Recently, in the dramatic play corner of the class, students were acting out "restaurant." They have the usual props – food, aprons, tables and chairs. But Early Reading First adds in a literacy component – menus and notepads for servers to write down orders. In science, math, and art, the Early Reading First curriculum uses literacy to strengthen the kid’s reading and writing skills, but keeps the focus on other important subjects, Teale says.

And the program is making a difference. As part of the grant, L.E.A.R.N. students' scores on basic literacy tests were compared with a control group – children of the same age and demographics who weren’t in the program. While both groups made gains over the year, the Early Reading First kids demonstrated greater development of their reading, writing and literacy skills.  

Banda says parents are constantly amazed at their children’s progress.

“The parents are like, ‘Ms. Banda, what are you doing to my kid?’” she says.

Charlise Berkel is the classroom’s literacy coach, a special position created by the grant to help the class adjust to the Early Reading First program. She says the main difference between kids at-risk and kids who do well in school is in the environment to which they are exposed.

“The kids are quite capable if you give them the support – the kinds of help and instruction they need,” Berkel says.

The new grant starts in October and includes new curriculum, classroom support through literacy coaches, professional development for teachers, and parent workshops.