Paras bring books and joy to kindergartners

It truly was an OMG moment—first, when the Springfield (Mass.) Federation of Paraprofessionals won a major grant from AFT partner First Book, and next, when thousands of kindergartners all over the city got to join a read-aloud party at their school on a Friday morning and take home a free book.

a group of paras in their t shirts

The “Books for Kindergarten Joy” program, a labor-management partnership by the paras and the Springfield Public Schools to hold regular read-aloud sessions with the district’s 2,100 kindergartners, won a $30,000 grant over the summer. As the program unfolds this fall, the OMG (Offering More Great) Books grant will provide every child with four free books to take home by the end of December.

The main event kicked off at Boland Elementary School on Oct. 4 with a visit from AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson. Before reading to them, Johnson introduced herself to the kindergartners and told them the significance of the number 5 million: “That is the number of books my union, the American Federation of Teachers, has given to students, parents, paraprofessionals, librarians and teachers all across the country, thanks to our partnership with First Book.”

Joining Johnson was a raft of state and local officials, including AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos, all of whom read to the children in small reading circles of about 10 students each, modeling their love of reading. Lisa Bakowski, Boland’s principal, greeted families and visitors. After the read-aloud, children received new books and backpacks filled with school supplies.

Beautiful moments

Cathy Mastronardi, president of the Springfield paras’ union, describes what it was like to bring the value of our union into a collaboration with the school district in securing the First Book grant—together, winning for their community the essential resources it would be impossible to obtain alone.

Lorretta reads to children

“It’s been fun,” she says. “You know, we went into it as kind of a lark. We’d never written a grant before. We got to work with people we’ve never worked with before. Honestly, we were so surprised when we won. The whole thing has been fun.”

The launch event produced some lucky coincidences and beautiful moments. Mastronardi is struck by the fact that the same picture book, My Name Is Yoon, chosen as the read-aloud story for the kick-off, happened to be the first title the paras had selected when they began buying books in the First Book Marketplace after distributing a truckload of 40,000 free books in 2015. The book was chosen because it was especially appropriate in a school district with a high percentage of immigrant students.

The event also generated solidarity. “I had a great talk with one of the custodians at the school because they made it look beautiful,” Mastronardi says. As a thank you for the custodians’ work making the school spotless, the paraprofessionals granted them honorary membership and T-shirts, which the custodians wore proudly.

The local president feels grateful that national and state AFT officers joined the paraprofessionals for their kick-off: “When we hear Lorretta’s story, knowing she was a para in a big city and worked her way up, she is near and dear to our hearts. It’s been a unifying experience.”

Mastronardi feels that public education is gaining support. In the Massachusetts State House, senators this month passed a funding bill that would provide an increase of more than $100 million over seven years for Springfield alone—much needed because the entire school system is a Title I district with high numbers of English learners. Aside from funding more instructional materials and staff, particularly in special education, the new funding may help defray school transportation costs for rural communities in the western part of the state. All are necessary investments to fund our future.

Family engagement

In applying for the OMG grant, paras and school officials cited a great need for early literacy. Community-level data, they said, indicates that only about 7 percent of the district’s children enter kindergarten with literacy readiness skills. Most require help identifying authors, illustrators and parts of a book.

“We know that there is a scarcity of books in the homes of our students,” they wrote, citing high poverty and unemployment rates citywide.

a line of small latino children pose for a picture with their books. they are smiling.

The free books, in English and Spanish, will be chosen from First Book’s “Stories for All” collection, so that children can see themselves in the books they read. These choices celebrate diversity and inclusion, with special attention to social and emotional learning.

With each book students take home, they also will bring home an activity sheet for their families to use, providing discussion prompts, activities and key ideas for kids to take away from the story. By having everyone read the same book, the paras hope to foster a sense of community.

Immediate goals for the “Books for Kindergarten Joy” program are to support early literacy, help build home libraries and encourage parent engagement in their kids’ education. Its longer-term goals are to help develop students into citizens, prepare them for college and careers, and promote a culture of equity. In their grant application, the paras noted “how important it is for children to develop a love and joy for books.”

[Annette Licitra/photos by John Muldoon and Leslie Getzinger]