By Jennifer Wheary, World Ark contributor
Photos by Rimaz Kaleel
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It was mid-June 2014, and students were sweating it out at The Children’s School of Rochester, a public school for kindergarteners through sixth-graders in Rochester, New York. The school’s kindergartners and fifth-graders were in the final stretch of a year-long commitment to Heifer’s Read to Feed® program. If reached, their goal to read 5,000 hours would earn a $5,000 pledge from a local philanthropist, enough to purchase an entire gift ark of animals for people in need. With just one week left in the school year, the students were 415 hours short of their goal.
Students at The Children’s School first enlisted in Read to Feed more than a decade ago, and since then, classes earned enough money for gift arks every year except one. Pressure was high, and 2014’s Read to Feed classes had no desire to break the streak.
The entire school tracked progress all year long on a large poster with a patchwork of repeating grids colored by hand. Each large box represented 100 hours of reading by students. While most of the poster was filled in by June, everyone was nervous about the conspicuous blank spots.
Fifth-grader Ruby Brown, age 11, appointed herself class cheerleader as the deadline ticked closer, encouraging her peers to push themselves to make the goal. “I ask everyone to look at the board and see that there are really not that many hours left. We’re so close. We all just need to read a little more each day, and then we will be able to help the people who need help,” she said.
All over the school, children read alone or to the adults around them. Everyone focused on logging precious reading hours as the deadline drew near. At home, they read to parents, siblings and friends. Posters around the school offered encouragement and reminders of the communities and families helped through past years’ animal donations.
“I would say go for it,” advised Eniyah Peart, a thirdgrader and Read to Feed veteran. “Everyone just read an hour every day. Think about how much that is.” Phillip Urai, another thirdgrader, told the students not to give up. “Read every day for an hour. Read on the bus, read wherever you can.”
Students at The Children’s School came to understand that every minute spent reading added up. Eniyah explained, “For me the most craziest thing … was when I was like, ‘Wow, how many hours have we read?’ As 44 kids reading at least 20 minutes every day, we got a lot of hours [last year], and I think we saved a lot of lives. We reached our goal early, even.”
Eniyah spoke positively about her Read to Feed experience. “My favorite part of [it] was just knowing that I did something good, and I helped someone to be able to have as good an education as I did.”
A Special Place
From the outside, The Children’s School looks like any other school. But entering its doors, one quickly realizes it is a special place. Among the many unique characteristics of the school is the fact that its nearly 300 students hail from 30 countries and speak more than 20 different languages.
Many of the walls between classrooms were removed, creating “grade-level families” and allowing teachers to group students flexibly in ways that fit the day’s lessons— for example, integrating English language learners with native speakers for some of the day, grouping by language abilities at other points. It is an approach that the school’s principal, Jay Piper, said benefits students and teachers alike.
Each year, the school’s music teacher composes an original welcome song. Teachers sing it to students on the first day of classes. Within a few weeks, all the students have learned the song by heart. They sing it to greet visitors to the school. As with the open walls between classrooms, the welcome song creates an atmosphere of inclusion.
The Children’s School embodies diversity—racially, ethnically and economically. Many of its students fled war, famine, natural disaster and poverty in their home countries, and many spent time in refugee camps. More than three out of four students come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In addition to students from places as far off as Bhutan, Yemen, Thailand, Mexico, Sudan and China, the school also serves the children of local families who seek a culturally diverse atmosphere.
The Children’s School has the distinction of being one of the first modern U.S. public schools founded by teachers and an administrator, as opposed to being mandated by a central school district. Since its founding in 1991, the school has dedicated itself to helping students who emigrated from other countries and for whom English is a second language. The passion that drove the school’s founding remains evident in its vibrant halls, its child-centered approach and its energetic, committed staff.
As a community focused on shared goals, The Children’s School is a can-do sort of place. That is one of the main reasons the school has achieved remarkable results in Heifer’s Read to Feed program.
Creating Community and Love of Reading
Something clicked when teacher Nancy Sundberg first read about Heifer’s Read to Feed program in a magazine. The program “looked like a really interesting way to tie a whole lot of threads together” for her students, she said. “So many of them are from other countries and come from families who have been struggling.”
Sundberg felt that participating in Read to Feed could inspire her students with stories of families who had survived adversity and moved on to better things. She also saw Read to Feed as an opportunity for her students to examine the larger causes—global poverty, political upheaval and natural disasters—behind the hardships so many of the families at the school experienced.
But what excited Sundberg most was her hunch that, by providing a way to make things better for others, participating in Read to Feed would motivate her students to read. Reading takes priority in any elementary school. But for the students of The Children’s School, roughly half of whom speak a language other than English at home, acquiring reading skills is especially important. “Time spent reading is one of the most important factors … needed to build language skills and move toward language proficiency,” Sundberg explained.
When they find a book they love, they keep it, Sundberg said. “This is the start of their personal library. They finally have a book in their house.” Students also move beyond seeing reading as an obligatory homework assignment. “Students begin to see reading as a way to learn. They realize it’s a way to have fun, a door to all kinds of opportunity. And also a way to help others.”
Students move from only wanting to get class credit for reading to looking for materials they can share with their families. Often students pick out books they feel will help with something the family is going through. “When that happens, I know they are seeing reading as a tool, that reading is becoming part of their life,” Sundberg observed.
Many of the parents in the school are learning English themselves, so having their children read to them in English aids the whole family. Aden Osman, a fifth-grader, talked about what motivates his reading. “Giving animals to people is my favorite part. We also help our own parents by reading to them. It’s like they go to school, too.”
Reading to family members helps students build longlasting confidence and instills in them a responsibility to share the skills they’ve acquired. Fourth-grader Lashon Alexander, who participated in Read to Feed two years ago, takes his role very seriously. “My grandmother sometimes forgets some words, and I just help her.“
His classmate Meh Ri Sha said she takes every opportunity she can to share her reading skills. “On Father’s Day, we had a card we gave to my dad, and he was having trouble reading it because he hasn’t learned [English] really, so I helped him read [the card]. I always help when he has trouble reading.”
Over the years, Sundberg has seen many students transformed by their participation in Read to Feed. “Being part of Read to Feed gives students a sense of serving. They become aware that there is something that they can do that will be of use to other people,” she said.
Results Beyond Imagination
Sundberg recalled the story of Kyondre Anderson, a former student who participated in Read to Feed as a secondgrader. “Kyondre was a tough kid … aggressive, hostile at times, confrontational in class, but with a parent who worked hard to get him more tuned into school.”
Kyondre’s mother and Sundberg tried to motivate him to read, helping him locate books about sports, superheroes, snakes and racecars. Still, it was difficult to get Kyondre to put the time in. “That year was no walk in the park with Kyondre,” Sundberg said.
Two and a half weeks before school ended, Kyondre and his classmates were 280 hours short of their goal. This was the year Hurricane Katrina devastated large parts of the South. The children decided to ask Heifer to direct some donations to families affected by the storm. The class had just finished watching a news update that focused on a jazz musician who had lost everything.
Sundberg remembered what happened next. “Kyondre jumped to his feet, pounding his fists on the table, and yelled out, and I’ll always remember these words, ‘Listen up, guys, we can do it, we have to do it, we will do it! We can’t let them down!’”
Kyondre then marched to the front of the room and took charge. He counted the days of school left and the number of children sitting in class. He directed the “smart math kids” to figure out how much each student would have to read each day to make the goal. He insisted everyone take more books home and asked Sundberg to assign everyone double reading time.
Things came down to the wire. When the class tabulated reading hours on the last day of school, they had reached 5,087 hours. Kyondre assigned groups to figure out what the class could buy with the extra $87. The class had to wait until the following school year to celebrate and formally receive a plaque that would be hung in the library. When the plaque was presented, Kyondre was at Nancy’s side to explain to the entire school how the class had pulled together to hit their goal.
On June 23, 2014, a steamy Monday two days before the end of the school year, students at The Children’s School earned their ark. Sundberg was ready, having pre-ordered the plaque, just in case. As the children tabulated their reading hours and realized they hit their goal, Principal Piper entered the room with this year’s plaque in hand. The celebration started on the spot.
After Piper presented the plaque, a group of fifth-graders unveiled a nearly four-foot-long toy ark they bought for the kindergartners as a memento of their cooperation and success. The fifth-graders said the ark, with its accompanying toy animals, was to help the younger children remember what they did for others. When the kindergartners entered first grade the next fall, they proudly took the ark with them.
Writer Caitlin Johnson contributed to this article.