Reads to Me program offers growth for toddlers and teens

Keyonna Adams is a Reads to Me intern at the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning and is also enrolled in the Gibbs High School Early Childhood Program. Here she is reading to Kyri Flowers.

By Holly Kestenis, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – With school about to start, the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning wants to get the word out to teens about an opportunity that not only pays but also educates others.

The center, located at 901 34th St. S, has eight classrooms designed to provide a high-quality early childhood education to children aged one to four. The Read to Me Program was established last November as an early literacy program set on preparing young children to enter kindergarten with the knowledge, vocabulary and comprehension skills necessary to help them succeed in school and become literate and successful adults.

The program provides structure and opportunity for children to be regularly read to by local high school students.

“We are one of a kind,” said Susan Weber, director of Professional Development at the Lew Williams Center. She was the first director at the early learning center when it opened in 2014, and has 27 years of experience in early childhood education.

Currently, 102 preschoolers flow in and out of its doors daily, all primed and ready to soak up knowledge. Hired students spend time working with the youngsters not only by reading aloud to them but also by incorporating science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) projects into their regular routine. Singing and authentic play is also a big part of the Read to Me program.

“I spend a lot of time teaching them to get into that play,” Weber said.

She aims for teenagers to have good conversations back and forth with the preschoolers. The goal is to build up vocabulary, so they hear the recommended 30 million words before entering kindergarten.

“That’s a big part of being successful.”

Lew Williams Center for Early Learning looks for roughly 10 students each year to work at the center. They earn $10 an hour and during the school year can work up to 15 hours a week. In the summer that jumps to 20 hours.

Student hires are extensively trained, starting with 12 hours of required online instruction before being welcomed through the doors. R’Club, Tampa Bay’s leading provider of quality childcare, has additional training that deal with safety in the workplace and customer service.

Once hired, Florida has 40 more hours of training as part of the grant the childcare center is rewarded by the state. Most students can complete it in their downtime at the center during the children’s naptime.

Weber guides all the students in working with young children. She leads them daily in the proper protocol necessary to be successful in preparing the toddlers to leave the school ready for kindergarten, and at the same time, ensuring that high-quality education spreads into the local community.

“We want to make that very contagious,” she averred.

When they age out or are ready to leave the program, testers go out to the center and grade student hires on all the basic training they’ve acquired and is needed to start in a classroom as an assistant if they choose.

Although most paid positions go to St. Petersburg and Boca Ciega High School students, Gibbs High School’s early childhood students also participate in the program as unpaid interns.

Flyers are sent out to schools and the Boley Center to help get the word out, but most is through word of mouth.

“It seems like everybody knows some teenager that would do well,” Weber said about the parents at Lew Williams preschool who help spread the word. “So, it’s a good thing.”

Students must fill out an application, complete all required training and maintain a 2.5 GPA to stay employed. They learn how to work in diverse and challenging situations and have patience and compassion towards others. Collaborative meetings are held weekly, giving students the floor on voicing the happenings in the classroom so challenges can be addressed.

Research shows that the more language and vocabulary children are exposed to at an early age, the higher their academic success in school. The Read to Me program lays the foundation for successful early literacy and at the same time provides teenagers with important skills that promise to carry over into whatever profession they choose.

“If more teenagers were able to be with the kids and volunteer, I think they’d feel like they have a purpose,” said Weber, who was surprised at the connection between the two age groups. “It’s cool, and it really does help all the children.”

If you are or know of a student that would be the proper fit, contact the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning. An application is required from prospective hires, so be ready to write at least 250 words on why the literacy work program is for you.

For more information or if you’d like to schedule a tour or enroll your child, email Susan Weber at or call 727-914-4935.

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