Starting kindergarten is a big deal for children and parents, and a lot is at stake when it comes to being ready for school. Far more than choosing a backpack and gathering supplies, “school readiness” includes children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development.
Studies show that school readiness is a critical indicator of children’s long-term well-being. This includes their potential to thrive well into adulthood, including college attendance, career trajectory, and saving money for retirement, according to published research.
Young children who are dual-language learners from low-income Latino backgrounds are at elevated risk for poor school readiness, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The reasons for this include communication challenges, low participation in formal preschool programs, and parents’ education experiences.
In New Brunswick, a family-oriented bilingual literacy program has been helping both children and parents develop skills and knowledge that are important for success in kindergarten and beyond. Led by faculty and staff from Rutgers and educators from Greater Brunswick Charter School, the program is designed to foster equity in school readiness so that all children have the opportunity to thrive.
One of the family literacy program’s creators is Manuel Jimenez, an assistant professor of pediatrics and family medicine and community health at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He received a Global Health Seed Grant in 2020 from Rutgers Global Health Institute to expand and formally evaluate the program, which teaches language and literacy acquisition skills to pre-kindergarteners using a curriculum based on health and wellness themes.
“Our program is based on a comprehensive view of the child and a 360-degree approach to health and well-being,” says Jimenez, who also is the director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics education at the medical school’s Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities.
Offered virtually in the summer of 2020 and 2021, the family literacy program features eight sessions that families attend via Zoom. Each one-hour session is presented live by a teacher from the charter school, who leads the children through a series of literacy-oriented activities, such as reading, writing, drawing, spelling, and singing.
The topics they review through books, songs, flashcards, movement, and conversation are related to the program’s four health-related modules: nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and social and emotional development. The children’s parents or caregivers also are involved in each session.
The curriculum was developed collaboratively by faculty and staff at the Center for Literacy Development at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education, the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Rutgers University–Camden, Greater Brunswick Charter School, and the medical school’s Department of Pediatrics. The health topics provide a meaningful context for learning, which Jimenez says is one of the program’s educational foundations.
“Kids learn more from things they experience in their own lives, like talking about what they eat for dinner or their bedtime routine,” he says, noting that the families also are learning how healthy living contributes to school readiness. “If a child is not sleeping or eating well, or not getting enough exercise, they may not do well in the classroom.”
Jimenez discusses insights gained from the pilot program in summer 2020 and the current program, which began July 6 and runs through August 27 and is supported by a grant from Rutgers Community Health Foundation.
According to recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the New Brunswick population is 47 percent Latino or Hispanic, and 54 percent of city residents speak a language other than English at home. These pre-pandemic estimates also show that 34 percent live in poverty. How do these factors contribute to children’s abilities to succeed in school?
As we were developing the program, we interviewed low-income Latino parents who live in the New Brunswick area and have preschool-age children. The parents expressed concerns that their own limited English proficiency and literacy skills interfered with their ability to support their children’s school readiness. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the preschool experience for many children.
Because of these and other dynamics, many children are not ready for kindergarten when the time comes, which puts them at a disadvantage that can be challenging to overcome.
How many families have participated in the literacy program, and how did they find out about it?
Last summer, we had 35 children participate with their parents or caregivers, and this summer we have 22 as of August 9. Families were referred by their pediatricians at the medical school’s Eric B. Chandler Health Center or by teachers at the charter school. Our early research revealed that the parents were interested in more help from their pediatricians in terms of how to start preparing for kindergarten, so it makes a lot of sense to take advantage of those existing relationships. It also helps make the connections between school readiness and overall health and well-being.
What are some of the skills the program is helping children to develop in terms literacy and language acquisition?
Our curriculum is based on early literacy skills endorsed by the National Early Literacy Panel: alphabet recognition, sight word identification, phonemic awareness, and storybook reading.
Because of the change to an online program, we encountered some challenges with how to assess the children’s skills. We’re working to improve this as we go forward. The seed grant from Rutgers Global Health Institute enabled us to formally evaluate the pilot program. We learned a lot and revised the program for this summer.
Are there any new components?
Yes, we created an at-home activity kit and streamlined the English and Spanish language aspects so that the children are working toward proficiency in both. We’re also doing weekly intention statements that encourage families to think about their health goals, such as, “We’ll go for a walk around the block after breakfast three times this week.”
How does the program support parents in terms of helping their children with school and incorporating healthy habits at home?
One of our major goals is to ensure that parents feel empowered to be part of their child’s educational experience. The literacy program creates opportunities for them to interact with the teacher and gain a better understanding of what their kids will be doing in school. This helps parents discover ways to reinforce learning at home.
One mom shared that, after we did the nutrition module featuring the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham (Huevos verdes con jamón), she and her child cooked a spinach omelet together. That’s an awesome opportunity to embed the importance of nutrition and connect it to literacy—expanding the child’s diet to incorporate vegetables, preparing the meal together, talking about what they’re doing. The health theme also helps parents to understand that things like proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise all contribute to learning and a child’s ability to be in a classroom.
Jimenez says that the program’s interdisciplinary approach underscores a need to consider children’s development holistically, that is, to appreciate the connections among different aspects of children’s experiences.
The following individuals are the Rutgers faculty and staff who have been collaborating with Jimenez and community partners to create and enhance the family literacy program: Lesley Morrow, Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for Literacy Development at the Graduate School of Education; Silvia Perez-Cortes, assistant professor of Spanish at Rutgers University–Camden; Shilpa Pai and Usha Ramachandran, associate professors in the Department of Pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and practicing pediatricians at Eric B. Chandler Health Center; and Daniel Lima, a research teaching specialist in the pediatrics department at the medical school. Individuals from Greater Brunswick Charter School who are involved in the program include: Lilia Fablia-Guilbot, family coordinator; teachers Diana Galindo and Lirizell Johnson; and Vanessa Jones, education director.
For more information about the family literacy program, contact Jimenez at email@example.com.