In Pinellas County, groups collaborate to get kids reading

BY LORIEN MATTIACCIm Neighborhood News Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG — This past Monday, Officer Josh Hall of the St. Petersburg Police Department read a children’s book about a dog named Mr. Bud and his very important schedule to a room of four year olds at the Speer YMCA Preschool Academy.

Officer Hall was participating in the Juvenile Welfare Board’s “Read Across the Globe” initiative, an attempt to set the Guinness World Record for the most children hearing adults read stories in a 24-hour period. The Board worked with partners around the world. In Pinellas County, adults read to over 1,000 children at more than 20 sites.

The “Read Across the Globe” initiative is just one example of how nonprofit and governmental agencies have allied to bring resources to Midtown children. Earlier this year, the Early Learning Coalition (ELC) founded “Officer Friendly’s Book Club” to promote literacy while building positive relationships with local police officers.

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter inspired the program when he read to a classroom as part of a literary celebration in January. Slaughter enjoyed the experience, and thought it would be good for his officers, too, according to Matt Spence, ELC Director of Planning and Development.

Thanks to this collaboration between the ELC and local law enforcement, Hall gets to read once a month to the 78 students at the Speer YMCA Preschool Academy, 2100 26th Ave. S, St. Petersburg.

For Monday’s event, Hall read only to the four-year-old class, and he picked the book. He selected Say Hello to Zorro! by Carter Goodrich because the book is about a pug, and Hall has two pugs at home. He also likes the message of the book.

“It talks about one dog coming into another dog’s home. They don’t get along at first, but then they become friends,” Hall said.

During monthly Officer Friendly readings, the ELC chooses the book and has literacy experts design extension activities to go with the chosen text. The teachers work with the students on the activities after the officer reads.

This month, officers read Have You Seen My Dinosaur to children across the county. Teachers then directed creative activities where students made dinosaurs and had students write or tell stories about what happened to their dinosaurs, Spence said.

When Hall asked students if they remembered the story, they chimed out around the room, sharing the details of their dinosaur adventures.

The Juvenile Welfare Board partnered with the ELC and law enforcement officers for the “Read Across the Globe” event to help local children improve their third grade reading proficiency scores. This is a part of the Board’s “Early Readers, Future Leaders” campaign, according to April Putzulu, JWB Strategic Communications Manager.

The YMCA raised $3 million to remodel the Immaculate Conception Learning Center, now the Speer YMCA Preschool Academy, which educates 78 students aged two to four.

“We’re not just a gym and swim,” said Shannon Jager, Director of Development for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. “We are very much a cause. We’re nonprofit, so all of the money that we raise through our membership programs and our wellness programs, every dollar of that revenue, comes right back into the community,” Jager said.

At Speer, students have access to a solid, evidence-based curriculum that includes elements like social and emotional guidance and character training. Teachers incorporate healthy living lessons throughout the day, including time in the teaching garden where students learn how to plant and harvest vegetables and herbs, Jager said.

The Speer YMCA Preschool Academy is part of the YMCA’s efforts to help local children read at or above grade level by third grade. This makes for a perfect partnership with the Juvenile Welfare Board.

“A lot of the children who are here today are here on scholarships. If their families can’t afford to pay the full price, we don’t turn them away. We do this through collaboration with the JWB and the ELC and YMCA scholarships. We want every child to have the opportunity to succeed in this kind of setting,” Jager said.

The program has not been around long enough to yield data on the effects of this collaboration, but in the meantime, the students get to have positive experiences with local police officers, and Hall has the best shift of the month.

Lorien Mattiacci is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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