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Reading program hopes to expand


You might call it "The Little Program that Could."

Starting with a $3,000 state grant and a burning desire to help students -- and their parents -- become better readers, the Family Literacy Program has grown to encompass five schools within three years.

"You're just in isolation working with the students, unless you look at the whole family," said Paula Despot, who founded the program with Laurie Ullery.

The pair's biggest task is to send the message to parents that they need to be examples for their children. That by reading themselves, parents can encourage children to read, and ultimately improve their schoolwork.

At tonight's Anne Arundel County Board of Education meeting, the program's creators hope to persuade the board to let them keep plugging the program until it is, ultimately, in every elementary school. The program is funded entirely through grants and business contributions.

The program is now in place at Jessup, Overlook, Van Bokkelen, Tyler Heights and Freetown Elementary schools. A program at Parole Elementary is operating on its own.

Literacy poses a problem that Joseph Czarnecki, coordinator of reading and language arts for the county, says he sees all the time.

"I recently went to a home to test a second-grader who was supposedly a poor reader," said Mr. Czarnecki. "I walked into the home, and there were no bookshelves, no magazine racks, the family didn't even get the daily newspaper. But in the center of the room was a 27-inch screen TV and stereo set. The message that kid was getting was that reading is not important -- the TV's important. We're trying to break that cycle."

Ms. Despot and Ms. Ullery try to break the cycle by involving parents and getting them to read aloud to their children. But the program doesn't stop there.

Sometimes parents are invited to spend part of the school day with their child; other programs are conducted in the evenings. Parents also are encouraged to read on their own, and the program has purchased reading materials, such as National Geographics, for the parents' use.

Basic education is provided for parents who need help reading themselves, and families with English as a second language can also benefit, Ms. Despot said.

Ms. Despot and Ms. Ullery worked out a deal with a California computer company, which donated 20 computer notebooks and sold them 10 more so the students can practice writing skills.

"There's nothing wrong with good ol' pen and paper," said Ms. Despot. "But children are exposed to technology very early, and if their parents aren't exposed too, then they need to be. With these notebooks, children also can turn out a product that looks appealing and adult-like, and reinforce their self-esteem and sense of pride. We're really helping parents be employable, and we're encouraging children to look to the future."

Tonight's meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 at board headquarters on Riva Road in Annapolis.

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