Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Community Schools Program Spotlight: Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story

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Through our Community Schools program, GHCC collaborates with over 80 partners to bring  innovative learning opportunities into local public schools. Goucher College is one of those many dedicated partners whose Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story afterschool literacy program has been running strong for more than a decade. We recently caught up with Goucher students Jacob Webbert and Emily Timothy, who direct the program at Barclay Elementary/Middle School.

Tell us a little about yourselves.

Hi everyone, my name is Jacob and I’m a psychology major (with a pre-medical focus) at Goucher College. In addition to being a student and a Director for Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story, I also serve as the Chair of the Judicial Board for Goucher College. In the summers I work on a small farm in central Maine.

I first got involved with Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story as part of a community-based learning class that I took at Goucher my freshman year. Every semester since I continued on with the program as a volunteer.

Hi, I’m Emily, I’m a sophomore Chemistry major at Goucher College.  On campus, I’m also involved in Gophers for Goucher, a group of students who provide philanthropic support to the college, and I’m a workshop facilitator for first-year Chemistry students.

When I came to Goucher and found out about Read-a-Story/Write-a Story, I jumped on the opportunity to be a part of this program.  Throughout high school I worked a lot with younger students as a mentor, tutor, or ‘teacher’s helper’, and I knew this was something I was passionate about.  After a year of volunteering, I was excited to get the opportunity to be an assistant director this year.

How did Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story come into existence?622A6432

Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story was founded more than a decade ago by Goucher students with the help of their professors. The idea was to create a program to more closely connect the College and its students to the neighborhood that Goucher originally existed in before it moved to Towson in 1953. It has been continuously operated and run by students ever since.

What’s your favorite thing about doing the program?

One of the best things about the program that we get to see every semester is the partnerships that form between the Goucher students and the Barclay students working together. We try to maintain a 1:1 ratio between the students with the goal of being able to foster some fantastic teams who get to work, help, and have fun with each other throughout the course of the entire semester. Seeing all the smiles, hearing all the laughter and questions, and experiencing all the stories and partnerships is without a doubt our favorite thing about Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story.

What goals do you hope the students will accomplish with the program?

We strive to see improvement in literacy, both reading and writing, for all students at all skill levels. With the partnerships that Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story creates though, it is also our goal to see increases in confidence, outreach, and communication. Students have fun with each other and they grow to be more comfortable connecting, asking questions, and trying new things. At the end of the program, the tangible finished products are the fantastic books that each student creates themself.

622A6512Will you describe some of the activities in detail that the students are learning/doing?

We usually start off the program with a quick game to help work off some of the energy from the day. Then we pick and read a story together as an entire group (Dr. Seuss and the fairy tale collection remain very popular with everyone). When we finish, we break up into teams of Goucher and Barclay students who then pick their own books to read with each other.

During the semester, each Barclay student receives a blank book of their own. With their Goucher student, they work on their own story and illustrations, each week adding a little bit more. By the end of the program they have a completed book of their own that they can bring home to keep and read.

What is your favorite aspect of working with students in Kindergarten to 3rd Grade?

One of the best things about this age group is their excitement, creativity, and curiosity to learn about just about anything. These qualities really lend themselves not just to building fun and strong partnerships, but also to writing some really great stories. Just this semester, a Barclay student has begun writing a story about a butterfly, a family of bears, and a school bus (we haven’t quite figured out the eventual role of the bus in the story, but it has been made clear to us that it is definitely an integral part of it). Everyone has so much fun and one of the identifying characteristics about our classroom is the echoing laughter emanating from it.

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Can you share a story or an achievement that took place in the program this year?

We had a Barclay student who, when he first started in the program, was very shy and tried to avoid reading mainly because he was a little embarrassed about his abilities. Each week though, his partner would read to him and they’d work together on a story. He loved to draw and so he would first draw his story ideas out while talking and answering questions with his partner about what he was doing. They’d then work on the letters and sentences to describe the story he was telling. A month or two into the program, he was waving us down as we were checking in with each group so that he could read aloud the new sentence that he had just completed.  These are the kinds of achievements that we love to see. They never get old.

What are the biggest lessons that you hope to instill in the young people that you work with?

The most powerful component of our program is the partnerships that are formed and fostered between students of all different ages, backgrounds, and strengths. If there is any one thing that we had to pick, it’s that community and teamwork are powerful concepts that can accomplish anything. Working together can pay large dividends and, more often than not, it’s a lot more fun.

What does the future look like for Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story?

Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story is a strong and popular program both at Barclay and at Goucher. The future of the program may shift in terms of its day-to-day activities but the core of the program and the partnerships it strives to form and create, will always remain at the heart of its mission.

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Want to support programs like Read-A-Story/Write-A-Story? Donate to GHCC so that we can continue to provide our public school students with innovative learning opportunities to which they may not otherwise have access. 

To see more photos, visit our Flickr page.


VISTA Member Vanessa Schaefer Reflects on Her Year of Service

This week we bid a very fond farewell to two of our AmeriCorps*VISTA members who are completing their service on Friday. One of those VISTA members is Vanessa Schaefer, who has spent her year of service at Barclay Elementary/Middle School building mutually supportive connections with the Harwood, Abell, and Charles Village neighborhoods.


Recently we caught up with Vanessa to reflect on her year at GHCC.


 You’re originally from Arizona—what brought you all the way out here to Baltimore?

I visited a friend in Washington, DC in September 2009 and we took a day trip up here. All my friends in Arizona were moving further west, but I wanted to check out places that hadn’t been explored as much by my group of friends. I felt like Baltimore was a place on the cultural up-swing, yet it was still a smaller city so it didn’t feel totally overwhelming (Phoenix is a big city, but it isn’t condensed like cities on the East Coast). I went home after that trip and started applying to positions out here and two months later I moved!
Vanessa carrying a scarecrow with Barclay students.

Was VISTA your first choice coming out of college? What other options did you consider? How did your family feel about you moving across the country to do a year of service?

AmeriCorps was my first choice coming out of college, though I hadn’t decided specifically on VISTA. I had considered other things like Teach for America and Peace Corps, but for various reasons I ended up going with AmeriCorps*VISTA, and I’m really happy with how it all worked out. My family wasn’t too concerned about me moving across the country, but I am very close to my brother, so it was difficult to move the farthest from him that I have ever been.
Every VISTA has a lot of ups and downs during their year. What was the toughest thing you had to deal with, and what/who got you through it?
The toughest thing I had to deal with was that early in my year, I was assaulted while in Washington, DC. Being in the midst of making new friends after having just moved alone across the country and started a new job, this added a whole other level of stress to the situation. What got me through it was making friends and pressing through the red tape to take advantage of the benefits AmeriCorps offers its members. Building a support system and utilizing the few resources you do have as a VISTA cannot be touted enough.
What accomplishment are you most proud of from your VISTA year?
My role in helping to create the Organized Parent Group at Barclay. It is one of the most stable, continuous projects I have worked on. This is something that needed my help to exist in the first place, but now that it does, it has the leadership and the momentum to play a huge role in the workings of the Barclay School and the sense of community amongst the families that come here. Capacity building is at the heart of the VISTA mission, and this was my favorite example of that.
What memory will always make you laugh?
Pretty much any event that required Kelly Oglesbee and me to handle the barbecuing at Barclay.
What is your favorite thing about GHCC?
The employees. I live with two people who were VISTAs during my time and they have been great. The people I work with, both GHCC and Barclay School staff, have made my year really enjoyable. They have also been a source of encouragement: seeing so many people working so hard to make Baltimore a better place has shown me the commitment of the community here and demonstrated real possibility for the future.
L to R: Vanessa, new VISTA member Marc Francis,
and Barclay Community School Director
Kelly Oglesbee

Where are you headed after November? Are you planning on staying in Baltimore?

After November, I’m not sure where I’m headed. I am actively looking for job opportunities, but I’m not done traveling yet. I may continue living here and traveling periodically, or I may move to a different state and experience that for a while. Either way, being 23, I don’t feel too terribly anxious about making concrete plans.
Give us the outsider’s perspective—when you moved here, what surprised you most about this city? What do you think is its biggest strength? Biggest weakness?
What surprised me most about Baltimore was how different each neighborhood was while still being in such close proximity to one another. The discrepancy of wealth, the culture of the region, the architecture, everything varied within blocks of each other, and I had never in my life seen that. The biggest strength I found was the sense of community and the willingness of people to work together towards what they want for themselves, their families, and their communities. It may have to do with the history of the city, but the community is something Baltimore should be really proud of.
It’s harder to pin down Baltimore’s greatest weakness. Honestly, it might be something as difficult to fix as the lack of money, or the lack of employment opportunities. These issues breed the street-level problems we see on a daily basis, and unfortunately, it’s a weakness that a lot of towns and cities are facing right now.
If you could say one thing to people just starting their year of service, what would it be?
Just go with it. It will probably be one of the strangest years of your life, and possibly one of the most difficult, but it’s definitely worth it and you’ll learn a lot. Keep your sense of humor and just go with it.

Community Involvement and Urban Education: A Labor of Love

Submitted by Laura Scott, Charles Village resident and parent.

GHCC has been promoting Charles Village public schools with support from a neighborhood-school partnership grant from the Goldseker Foundation.  This work– including parent focus groups — inspired a few families to start the Village Parents, an organization dedicated to increasing family-friendly options in Charles Village.  Here, Laura Scott talks about her journey from an expectant mother buying a home in the city to a neighborhood leader championing great urban public schools.

When my husband and I moved to Charles Village in late 2008, part of the draw of the neighborhood was the close-knit community. We had visions of building friendships with neighbors and getting involved with community associations.  However, starting an entirely new organization, particularly one geared toward people in one of the most intimidating life stages we could imagine – young parenthood (I was pregnant at the time) – was nowhere near the top of our list of priorities.

We loved city living and loved what we knew of Charles Village, but as we were looking for the perfect home, we couldn’t escape the question of where we’d send our daughter to school in five years. Like many people, we were influenced by the conventional wisdom that city schools could never offer the quality of education we would want for our child.

I wasn’t satisfied that public city schools were an impossibility for us, and we bought our house while our questions about the state of the schools were still unanswered. Even if it was true that the schools were providing sub-standard education to their students, we didn’t feel we had the right to flee to private schools or the suburbs for our own piece of mind without learning first if there was something we could do to help. If the schools had to be improved in some ways, how better to make that happen than by getting personally involved with our children? Yet at the same time, we didn’t want to put our own child on the line for the sake of our idealistic agenda. We realized that if we were going to have a shot at bringing about any change, we would need others to do it with us.

Through conversations with neighbors, I learned that another Abell resident, Jo Ann Robinson, had been part of a movement in Charles Village in the 1970s to do exactly what I was envisioning. In passing, I shared with Greater Homewood Community Corporation (GHCC) staff at the Abell Street Fair last September how much I admired Jo Ann’s efforts, and soon thereafter was invited to join a parents’ focus group at GHCC to discuss the public schools and why parents would or wouldn’t send their kids there.  The points that came out of that meeting were used by GHCC in its application for the Goldseker Foundation’s Neighborhood-School Partnership Grant on behalf of Barclay and Margaret Brent schools. 

It was enlightening to learn about others’ perspectives, but even more, it was encouraging to find that one other parent, Laura Wexler, was asking the same questions I was. Coincidentally, we crossed paths the very next day at a newly begun playgroup and started to exchange ideas.  Our combined vision was to begin a parents’ organization that would develop within the context of social community while also setting specific goals to make the neighborhood more “family friendly,” with school involvement a top priority. A few weeks later we gathered a group of parents who wanted to help establish our mission and goals, and the Village Parents was born.

Laura and I have learned quickly that starting a new organization is not easy. Goals must start small and be very tangible. The kinds of community needs we can address aren’t always apparent, and we have to wait for something meaningful to arise (recently, for example, we were presented with the opportunity to buy custom benches for the Abell Open Space). Our ideas often tend not to lend themselves easily to delegation, and so we often just tackle them ourselves. Sometimes hours of legwork turns out a negligible result. It has become more or less a part-time job for me, and as a stay-at-home mom, I usually devote my daughter’s nap time to Village Parents projects.

Although it’s been hard to pin down a singular focus and figure out how to recruit volunteers for specific projects, we have gained some momentum in creating events to bring parents and other community members together to give them an opportunity to engage in the schools. Most recently, we have been hosting a series of panel discussions featuring members of the educational community who share about issues in urban education, types of teaching styles, and success stories in city schools. Although our School Daze series has so far proven to be more appealing to the community than our target audience – parents of school-age or younger children – we see it as an opportunity to establish ourselves as an asset to the community that will deliver a product and not just talk theory.

We envision Charles Village becoming a magnet neighborhood one day for families who are attracted by the diversity of residents; strong community among people of different ethnicities, cultures, and demographics; and strong public schools. But we’re certain this vision won’t be accomplished until the families who are here now make it a priority to share this vision and help us work toward it. A desire for community will inherently build a community. Right now it’s our job to fuel the desire.

The Village Parents are hosting the second in a series of five public panel discussions on the state of urban education tonight at Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School.  If you can, come out between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. for a memorable conversation with community leaders who have dared to make a difference.