Neighborhood House believes that literacy is crucial to a child’s success in life. By the end of third grade, students should transition from learning to read to reading to learn. This can only happen if their literacy skills are proficient. If students are unable to read at grade level, they begin falling behind in other areas like math, science, and history.
Minnesota has one of the widest gaps in reading scores between White students and students of color, with Black and Hispanic students reading at nearly half the level of their White peers. In St. Paul, this gap is clear. With more than 18% of the population being immigrants and the city accepting new refugees at the highest rate in Minnesota, many residents are non-native English speakers.
Youth Literacy Coordinator Sara Jochems explains, “Most of my students are struggling readers because English is not their first language. They are fantastic at speaking and understanding English, but when it comes to reading and writing, English becomes more challenging. Another contributing factor for some of my students is not having their basic needs met. This makes school and any subject matter more difficult.”
Sara (also known as Ms. Sara) works with youth ages 6-24 at five St. Paul Public Schools, or youth transitioning into our Adult Education program, or young adults just entering the country. The schools she works in have significantly lower literacy proficiency scores than state and federal levels, with the biggest contributing factor being that English is not students’ first language. Through daily one-on-one or small-group sessions with Sara, students work on improving their reading and writing abilities. “My role is to be a consistent, genuine, and supportive adult in their lives — one who advocates for their individual literacy growth which leads to academic ownership and self-confidence,” Sara explains.
Part of her role is making reading fun. So she’s developed literacy-based events designed to help children learn to love reading. With the help of teenager co-facilitators also enrolled in Youth Literacy programming, she’s done events themed around bingo, around-the-world, and more recently, a picnic in the park reading to puppies!
The dogs were from Canine Inspired Change, a nonprofit that connects and empowers youth through the healing power of therapy dogs. Volunteers and their dogs attend schools, recovery groups, and other community events like those at Neighborhood House.
But why reading with dogs? For students with lower literacy levels, the calming presence of a dog helps diffuse the stress and anxiety they feel when reading aloud. Without someone there to judge their performance, students begin to increase their confidence, which in turn helps fuel them to become better readers.
Students brought their favorite books, plopped down on a blanket, and met new furry friends like Wallace the English Setter, Millie the Labrador Retriever, and fan-favorite Phoebe the Mastiff. They smiled while they read, multitasking by turning the pages and petting their four-legged partner all at the same time. At the end of the event, students had begun to associate positive feelings with reading.
Ms. Sara plans to continue these types of literacy-focused events throughout the upcoming school year. For now, she’s looking forward to a special surprise at the end of summer programming. She explains, “I cannot wait until the end of the summer, when all of our students will go home with a bag full of brand new books!”