Dual-language early educational programs help young Latinos advance in reading

Hispanic youth in the Westside of Syracuse connect with their culture through reading circles and literacy programs.

He chose her. In a room full of rambunctious children running around with English and Spanish books, a young bright-eyed kindergartener with chubby cheeks kept asking her to read stories to him. He would continually hug her, look for books and ask her to read them to him. She didn’t know why, but “Boo Boo” chose her out of all the other volunteers at the reading circle at the La Casita Cultural Center.

“In 1987 our program served two Latino children. Now we serve 76 Latino children."
- Theresa Pagano, MANOS Founder

“I know next time he’s going to be looking for me,” said Luma Trilla, program coordinator at the center. “If I wasn’t here next time, 'Boo Boo' would have to make another bond with somebody else, and start all over again. I’m going to be here for him, and for any other kid.”

Thirty-four percent of children entering kindergarten lack the basic language skills needed to learn how to read, according to the Council of Early Childhood. Many Hispanic children enter kindergarten without basic literacy skills, and less than half of Hispanic children in the U.S. are enrolled in an early learning program.

Because of this, preschool-aged Hispanic children have lower scores in reading than their non-Hispanic peers, according to The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Two community early education programs in Syracuse provide Hispanic children with dual-language opportunities, in Spanish and English, for reading and literacy growth.

“I think it’s important to have text in both Spanish and in English, and to have texts where kids might look at and say, ‘She looks like me,’ or ‘That family is like mine,’” said Margot Clark, a librarian at La Casita. “And to have books that are cultural, have the language, and have them see themselves.”

What started as a response to residents of the Westside community, the planning of the reading circles at La Casita Cultural Center started six years ago. The Latino community wanted a program with a multicultural focus where children could learn about their own culture, history, art and literature and develop dual-language skills.

This type of program is not typically seen in city schools, and is certainly not a priority, said Tere Paniagua, executive director of Cultural Engagement at La Casita.

From 2010 until 2012, the reading circles were a six- to eight-week summer program at the center. In 2013 the program became a weekly, year-round program for children ages 8-12. La Casita also hosts a monthly reading circle in collaboration with La Liga Youth Programs for children ages 5-12.

“We began to see how they started to develop a real interest in reading, and how their skills began to develop in both in English and in Spanish,” said Paniagua.

MANOS Dual Language Early Childhood & Intergenerational Learning program also focuses on dual-language and literacy skills in both English and Spanish.

MANOS started in 1987 with two mothers from the Westside, originally from Luisa, Puerto Rico. Theresa Pagano, founder of MANOS, met with these mothers and their children twice a week in a room at 310 Seymour St., where she would teach early learning similar to call and response – all conducted in Spanish.

Pagano saw the need for a community where young mothers from the Westside could come together with their children and connect with their culture. At the time, the Syracuse City School District had only three or four Latino children enrolled in schools in the district, Pagano said.

MANOS focuses on the dual-language development of cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills of 3- and 4-year-old Latino children. In this program, teachers use different strategies to teach but focus on the same theme. For instance, when children go to their English classes, they’re learning the same concepts: eyes are made for seeing, nose is for smelling. By learning these words in English and in Spanish, they’re becoming bilingual and becoming comfortable with both languages, Pagano said.

“In 1987 our program served two Latino children. Now we serve 76 Latino children,” said Pagano. “We focus on Latinos because MANOS is a dual-language program.”

With their dual-language reading circles, La Casita tries to connect curriculum to what children are learning at school, Trilla said. The children who attend the weekly reading circles mostly live in the greater area surrounding the center.

One week the children will read a book that relates to their Hispanic heritage or culture, such as “Dalia’s Wondrous Hair” (“El caballo maravilloso de Dalia”) or “Last Stop on Market Street.” The next week, they’ll do an activity that ties in with the book, like an art project. For the book “Dalia’s Wondrous Hair,” Clark, who plans the reading circles, creates an art activity where the children will draw Dalia’s hair.

“My first goal is to always enjoy the books,” said Clark. “I want it to be sort of a book club, in that they will begin to understand how to get a little more out of the book, and how to turn that knowledge into a creative project.”

The indicators that measure the success of this program include attendance, the return rate of children and involvement children’s parents, said Paniagua. The teachers of the children who attend the reading circles provide important feedback as to how the children are doing in school, how they are improving and what areas they need more support in for reading and writing skills in early educational programs like reading circles. With this feedback, volunteers are able to assist children with their homework when they come to the Center for reading circles.

“Those little four-year-olds head off to kindergarten, and I know they’re prepared,” said Pagano. “We use formal evaluation that is required by the Syracuse City School District. And teachers, especially from Seymour [Dual-Language Academy] say, ‘We love those MANOS kids!’ They know they’re ready.”

Most of the children who graduate from the MANOS program end up enrolling in Seymour Academy or Syracuse Academy of Science, said Pagano. The full-day, Monday through Friday early education program aims to prepare children for elementary school and beyond. Currently, there are 36 children enrolled in the curriculum for 3-year-olds, which is primarily conducted in Spanish. The objective for the 3-year-olds is to get them used to routine, get along with each other and learn about their emotional feelings, said Pagano. She cares about building confident learners, not English speakers at this point.

As for the program for 4-year-olds, it focuses more on English language acquisition and improving Spanish skills. The true dual-language piece comes in with the 4-year-olds, she said.

Parents who were MANOS graduates now have their children enrolled in the program, after 28 years of operation. Pagano recalls a Cuban “young fella” who came to the program when he was 2 years old, who’s now 21, in the Marines and has received awards for his service.

“What’s great is that families keep in touch,” she said. “When he got that [honor], I got a phone call.”

When he graduated from MANOS at four, Pagano thought his abuela would move on as well, but she didn’t. She still volunteers with the program almost every day.

Parent or family involvement in MANOS lies at the core of the program. Children in MANOS must have a family member who volunteers at least 10 hours a month with developing the monthly calendar, helping with the snack menu, cleaning up and helping in other areas of assistance.

For La Casita, Paniagua would love to see direct involvement with parents and families of the children who attend the reading circles grow. One of La Casita’s important goals for the year is to do more family outreach with programs such as La Liga and MANOS.

“Our mission is to support different families of diverse languages to learn, earn and do well,” said Pagano. “We focus on the learn part, which will lead you to the earn part. If you learn, not just academically, you’ll live healthily, and you make money, then you’re going to live well.”

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