Books for Babies Program at Camelot Education’s Chester Upland Academy Encourages Student Parents to Read to Their Children

 In Camelot Blog

Camelot Education’s Chester Upland Academy, near Philadelphia, is doing its part to encourage students who are also young mothers and fathers to read to their children with the hopes that this will start a generational change and help diminish the reading gap. At the beginning of the school year, the campus began a program called Books for Babies. The program provides books to young mothers and fathers to read at home to their infants and toddlers.

“Once word got out about the idea, donations of books started coming in,” says Chester Upland Academy Executive Director Dan Peticca. “We have two bookcases full of books plus more in stock. We’ve told the students in our program and others who graduated and later had children that they can take 2 to 3 books, read them, and bring them back. Then they can borrow 2 to 3 more, or if their child really likes the book, they can just keep it and come back and get more. I just want to encourage our students and alumni to read to their children.”

The bookcases are located in the room where Townhouse, a twice-a-day all-school assembly, is held. That way, students see the bookcases every day and are reminded that the books are there to be borrowed. So many books have been donated that the school now allows all students to borrow books to read to their younger brothers and sisters.

Director of Education Maura Schlindwein has been the biggest advocate for the program. She said the idea came from a conversation she had with a student last year.

“I had a conversation with a young man who had a son approaching age two,” explained Schlindwein, whose background is in special education. “We got to talking about reading because the assignment that day was about reading comprehension. I wanted the students to search the text for the answers, and this student said he didn’t like to read. I told him, as a father, he should be reading to his son. The thought that came from that conversation was that we have a lot of young parents at our school. I have three children myself, and they’re now teenagers, so I decided to bring in the books that I read to my kids when they were babies and toddlers and share them with our parent students. That’s where all this came from.”

Staff started bringing in books. Then the school promoted the program on Facebook, and the donations rolled in. Now, the school has books ranging from ABC hard-page cardboard books all the way to novels.

“Students’ comprehension of the subject matter depends on whether they understand the vocabulary of the content, and that all starts at home,” Schlindwein said. “We talk a lot with our students about the importance of writing and how it contributes to success at the post-secondary level. If they don’t have the words, writing becomes much more laborious. Whereas if they have lots of words, they have more to work with and can express themselves better. Students who were read to at a very young age usually have a lot more to work with.”

A 2018 study in the journal Pediatrics provides evidence that reading to (and playing with) young children can have a sustained impact on them, shaping their social and emotional development in ways that go beyond helping them learn language and early literacy skills. According to the study, reading to children even has the potential to help reduce problem behaviors like aggression, hyperactivity, and difficulty with attention.

The Books for Babies program speaks to the way in which Camelot Education supports the whole child. That means making sure their fundamental needs are met to set the stage for learning. In the case of students who are also parents, those needs may mean helping them with parenting skills. Because of the strong family-like relationships teachers and staff form with students, they feel safe, welcome, and supported at school.

“When I’m at home with my own kids, I’m still thinking about my students,” Schlindwein said. “They know we’re here for them, and if something significant in their life happens, they can call us whenever they need us. Our relationship with our students extends beyond just offering them an education. Our whole team constantly talks about resources for students or how our student parents might benefit from a certain program. It’s not really a 9-to-5-type job. Our gears are always spinning when it comes to providing the best care for our students.”

Chester Upland Academy provides alternative education programs to students in the Chester Upland School District. The accelerated program serves students in grades 9 through 12 who are at risk of dropping out. The program provides the opportunity for students who are overage and under-credited to make up lost ground and earn their high school diploma. The transitional program is for students in grades 6 through 12 who were referred by the district for behavioral challenges. Both programs are guided by a culture of empowerment where students to work with teachers and staff to create change in their lives.

The community extends beyond graduation at Chester Upland Academy. “We had an alumna bring her baby in this week,” said Schlindwein. “She told us, until now, she hadn’t thought about reading to her baby. She got some books and is now reading to her baby. Another student who worked at a daycare took a book to read to her daycare children, and said they loved it, so we told her to keep the book so she could continue to read to them. The word is definitely out!”

Added Peticca, “Our hope is we’ll start a movement, and in the next few years, maybe we’ll have a lot of kids in the city of Chester being read to by their parents.”

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