A few months ago, the “community room” at La Mirada Apartments wasn’t exactly a hub of community activity. A mop bucket and a rolled-up carpet occupied the space, and the roughly 150 children living in the apartment complex had no reason to give the room a second glance.
But on June 19, a transformed room opened, with brightly colored walls, shelves of books and plenty of furniture for little people to spread out and read.
The new focus of the room: literacy.
The United Way of Manatee County debuted its READ UNITED Reading Room program for the children at La Mirada, in the Pride Park neighborhood. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day, children can read, play and have access to books they likely would not see until school started again in the fall.
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“We are trying to bring reading and program access to students who need it the most,” said Cindy Cavallaro Day, a co-founder of Visible Men Academy and a consultant for United Way of Manatee County for the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading. “Everybody talks about the loss over summertime ... so we are creating the summer (learning) gain here at the reading room.”
Several literacy-focused organizations in Manatee County have collaborated on converting the community room at La Mirada, and they have their sights set on expansion. The United Way has identified 20 additional apartment sites near high-poverty Title I schools, all with access to a community room and with plenty of children. They hope to have 10 new rooms operating by the end of 2018, Cavallaro Day said.
Last week, roughly 20 children listened as teacher Valerie Letz read them “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” The children groaned when Goldilocks woke up to the sound of the bears walking up the stairs.
“She’s probably like, ‘I can’t believe I entered a bear’s house,’ ” 10-year-old Angelina Huet said. “She’s probably scared and nervous and can’t move.”
Reading Room participant Vianca Vasquez, 10, said she knows the consequences of not being a strong reader. In 2016, she did not pass the Florida Standards Assessment, so she was held back in third grade.
“At that moment I used to never care about my education. I would just go outside and play,” Vasquez said. “My mom said, ‘See the consequences when you don’t study?’”
A lack of access
In Manatee County, 50 percent of third-graders did not pass the Florida Standards Assessment reading test. Not all are held back, like Vasquez was, because the state allows the district to use other means to promote. Beth Duda, director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading, said access to books is a key indicator as to how well a child will do on the state tests – and beyond.
“As few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact on a child’s ascent into higher education,” Duda said.
A frequently cited 2001 study found that children in Philadelphia’s middle-income neighborhoods had as many as 13 books per child, while in low-income neighborhoods there was one book for every 300 children.
Duda said they do not have definitive statistics on how many books the average child in a low-income Manatee County neighborhood has, but she doesn’t think it is much different from the Philadelphia study.
“We have not wanted to spend thousands of dollars to verify that’s true, but we know anecdotally there are not many books in public housing,” Duda said.
The idea behind the Reading Room is to bring library resources to children, rather than expecting them to come to the library. La Mirada Apartments has more than 150 children under 17, and the vast majority don’t attend camp or educational activities during the summer. To get to the nearest library — the South Manatee Branch — would be a 3 1/2-mile walk.
“They don’t have the resources to go to the library,” said Hana Helland, a teacher’s aide working at the camp. “Mom, grandma, sister, brother is doing something, so for them they are going to have difficulty to read and learn a lot.”
A team effort
The camp is the result of several like-minded entities working together. The United Way of Manatee County identified the sites and paid to re-purpose the community rooms, the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County donated books, the Library System of Manatee County hired teachers and teachers aides to run the rooms and provided audio books and tablets, and the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading provided funding. Several contractors donated labor or supplies to convert La Mirada’s community room.
After the story, the younger children brought books out to a playground with them while the older students stayed inside and played with Launch Pads — tablets loaded with literacy prep games. Other students picked up book packs, which have the print and audio versions of a book.
Jodie Williams, the literacy coordinator for Manatee County Public Libraries, said the Launch Pads are ideal because they only have games that have been vetted by educators, and they do not connect to the internet. The book packs are targeted toward struggling readers and students learning English.
Vasquez, who had to repeat third grade after she did not pass the FSA, was reading “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Having to repeat a grade was a turning point for her: She began to read more during her second try at third grade in hopes of passing the FSA, and it worked.
“When I read it just helped me,” Vasquez said. “I just passed all my tests. It just changed.”