REAPing the Rewards of Family Literacy: DeKalb County PL's Program for Immigrant Families Goes beyond Teaching English-Language Skills

Article excerpt

At Project REAP (Reading Empowers All People), even the traditional nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie" is not what you'd expect. Rather than circling to the traditional American singsong pace, parents and children from southern Sudan, Somalia, Vietnam, and Iraq clasp hands around a new beat, lifting legs high as they swirl to a step-STEP rhythm all their own. Toddlers can hardly control their excitement as they anticipate when "all fall down!" Preschoolers, mothers, and children's librarians fall to the floor with shouts, clapping, and giggles.

Refugee and immigrant families turn to DeKalb County (Ga.) Public Library's family-literacy program to learn English and their ABCs, but they often end up showing each other and their teachers something new, whether it's a measured description of cooking "back home" or an improvised dance step. "One of the best things about Project REAP is that it allows for the merging of so many interests and skills from staff members and refugee families as they work together," noted Laura Hauser, the library's literacy services officer. "We have so much to learn from each other."

The program itself is simple: For an hour, children's librarians provide educational activities for young children while an instructor from a local community college teaches the parents English. Then parents and children come together for PACT, or Parent and Child Together time, to share what they've learned. In this setting, parents are encouraged to experience themselves as their child's first and most important teacher. For half an hour, parents and children color together, talk about nutrition while cutting apples, or cut loose and show each other the funky moves they can do in "The Hokey Pokey."

An evolving program

DeKalb County saw a 53% increase in immigrant population from 1990 to 1999--the nation's second-largest increase of its kind. Children in our public schools speak more than 80 languages. The connection between the library and community is natural in such a fertile context and, with the generous $100,000 gift from an anonymous private donor as well as the partnership of community agencies, DCPL has been eager and able to respond to this shift in our population.

Project REAP has grown since it began in 1999. In our first year, classes met in apartment buildings to make attendance easy for families with young children. As our second year approached, we saw an opportunity to reach more families by partnering with community organizations. We began to have classes once a week at Newcomers' Network, a social services agency working with refugees and immigrants; and at Sheltering Arms International Village Child Care Center, which cares for many children from immigrant families. These partnerships allowed Project REAP to reach more families, to enhance programs already offered at the agencies, and to meet in a convenient place for parents and children. …

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