Weber State University junior Jeni Claudio is proud to report that she reads regularly with her five young children, who have made great strides in their educational achievement. That’s quite an accomplishment, considering she was raised by parents who couldn’t read.
The Claudio family is just one of 2,000 Weber County families served by Weber State’s College of Education Family Literacy Program, since its inception in 2006.
The program provides in-home literacy and parenting support to families, most of whom participate in Head Start. Four family literacy facilitators visit 150 families once every three weeks. They provide strategies and resources to help parents with literacy activities, including daily reading schedules and educational activities. They also provide parenting tips, such as setting goals and routines, improving communication and relationships, and establishing positive discipline practices that avoid yelling or spanking.
Claudio said her family dynamics changed significantly following the help and guidance of facilitator Ana Carlin, a 2006 Weber State family studies graduate.
“I was a single mom, and I had a job, but it was so hard with my kids who were so little. I was broke, and it was horrible. I was in a really dark place in my life,” Claudio said. “When Ana came, it was like, she was teaching me things I didn't know, that my parents didn't teach me. Reading to my kids is going to help them in the future. Having that family time with a book, or having my son on my lap and teaching him his letters is really nice. Now, all of my kids are doing great in school.”
In addition to changes in parenting, Claudio began her own educational journey. She visited Weber State’s Community Education Center, where she received the help and encouragement she needed to enroll at the university.
“The first day of class was the worst,” Claudio remembered her feelings fall semester 2015. “Actually the first week, I would come into class, and I had no idea what was going on. I was sweating. I was so scared my palms were wet. I had no idea if I should just grab my backpack and leave and not come back again. I was sick to my stomach. That whole week, I couldn't sleep; I was so overwhelmed with everything. I would have nightmares of not coming to class or not passing a test.”
Now, as a successful junior studying social work, she said those first days are as funny to look back on as they were terrifying to begin.
Carlin met with Claudio for nine months, and although the formal visits ended in 2013, they continue to stay in touch.
“At the beginning, I could see that Jeni felt alone and needed help from the community, from programs like this one,” Carlin said. “Now, wow, what a change. She is focused, and she wants to improve her life and improve the lives of her children.”
The major focus of the Weber State University Family Literacy Program is to mentor and educate the parents of Head Start children. The majority of participants, 87 percent, come from lower income backgrounds and 60 percent identify as Latino or other ethnic minority.
“Many children in the Ogden area do not possess the literacy skills critical to later academic success,” said Paul Schvaneveldt, Family Literacy director. “Thus, cycles of lower levels of educational attainment and subsequent poverty may be perpetuated across generations unless children are given opportunities to develop literacy skills at an early age, leading to a trajectory of academic accomplishment.”
The program operates in partnership with the WSU’s Department of Child and Family Studies, Ogden-Weber Community Action Partnership (Head Start), Elizabeth Stewart Treehouse Museum, George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, Ally Bank, Stewart Education Foundation, and the Weber State Packer Center for Family and Community Education.
Glasmann family, represented by Myrene Glasmann Temple, are primary donors. Their father, Jay Glasmann, owned the Standard-Examiner in the 1980s. When he sold the paper, he endowed a fund at WSU for family literacy education in Weber County.
Studies show that when families have more books in their home, children are more likely to graduate from high school and pursue higher education. The WSU Family Literacy Program enjoys a partnership with the Ogden Deseret Industries Thrift Store, which donates 4,500 books and educational games for the participating families. In many cases, the donated books are the only reading materials available for younger children in the home.
The benefits of early literacy and family-centered learning activities are identified by multiple studies. In 2014, the American Association of Pediatrics recommended reading to children from birth and that doing so is as important as breastfeeding and vaccinations. The first years of life are periods of rapid brain development, and reading enhances vocabulary and communication skills. A recent federal study found that only one-third of children living below the poverty line are exposed to reading and intentional learning activities during infancy and early childhood.
“Families are the setting where early learning happens; some families expose their children to 2 million words in their childhood, while other families expose their children to more than 30 million words,” Schvaneveldt said. “Those with more exposure to language and learning have a larger vocabulary and better verbal skills. This, in turn, leads to greater school readiness for kindergarten. Research shows that a larger vocabulary in kindergarten is a strong predictor of later academic success. The goal of the WSU Family Literacy Program is to empower families to build literacy skills with their children to better prepare them for success in school and life.”