Potential volunteers hope to turn page on illiteracy

May. 03, 2014 @ 03:37 PM

Monica Nneji has sent five children through the Durham Public Schools.

Nneji, an immigrant from Nigeria, said the school district has been good to her family, helping to produce a physician and a Columbia University alumnus.

That’s a big part of why Nneji rose early Saturday morning to participate in the school district’s inaugural literacy summit — so that she may learn skills to help young children improve their reading and writing skills.

“I’ve always encouraged my children to give back,” Nneji said. “Reading empowers people. We need to come and learn because you can’t give back that which you have not learned.”

Nneji was one of the nearly 200 people who attended the summit at Brogden Middle School.

Another was Ruby Lawson, whose church, Union Baptist, runs an after-school tutoring program.

Lawson said that she and Nneji hoped to learn useful strategies to use in their work with children who attend the program.

“We want to get some concrete strategies that we can use,” said Lawson, a retired Durham Public Schools educator.

DPS hopes the summit will translate into about 865 or so volunteers it needs as it prepares to launch a series of state-mandated summer camps for third-graders who perform below grade level on state reading tests.

The six-week camps are required under the Read to Achieve program, part of the Excellent Public Schools Act that became law in July 2012.

Stacey Wilson-Norman, the district’s deputy superintendent for academic services, said in an interview that 865 children have been identified as potential candidates for the camps, which will be held at 10 elementary schools throughout the district.

“There’s one more assessment due, so that number could go down,’” Wilson-Norman said.

DPS had initially estimated that about 1,800 students might have to attend the summer reading camps but that number decreased after subsequent assessments.

The cost of operating the camps has also decreased as a result.

Wilson-Norman said the camps will cost the district about $1 million compared to the $1.4 million projected earlier this year.

Before the volunteers broke into small groups to attend concurrent sessions with names such as “Just the right texts: Which texts help good readers grow,” they received an inspirational message from Phail Wynn, vice president for Durham and regional affairs at Duke University.

Wynn said correcting the decades-old literacy deficiency in children pre-K through third-grade will require setting aside personal agendas and coming together as a community.

“It’s one we’ve been dealing with for more than 20 years,” Wynn said of the problem.

He talked about the struggles of some students who attended Durham Technical Community College where he was president for nearly 28 years.

Wynn said a trend emerged where more and more students who took placement tests were found to be deficient in mathematics and reading. He said some spent three semesters taking remedial courses that didn’t count toward a degree.

“These students were forced to pay a harsh penalty for graduating without having achieved reading proficiency,” Wynn said.

He added that too many five-year olds are showing up for kindergarten unprepared to learn, which can lead to frustration, low self-esteem and anger.

“These students are not ready for kindergarten, so who’s at fault?” Wynn asked.

Anyone interested in volunteering should contact Regina Nickson, the school district’s community engagement liaison at 919-560-2082 or regina.nickson@dpsnc.net.