Community Connect
Office of the Vice President for Community Services

Reading Takes Us Places

UTSA literacy programs and their impact in the San Antonio community

By Carolina Canizales

Young participant reads his favorite book to an audience of parents and family members during CITL’s celebration party. Photo: Jo Ann Jones

Young participant reads his favorite book to an audience of parents and family members during CITL’s celebration party. Photo: Jo Ann Jones

"Where would you be if you couldn't read?" asks Mary Flannigan, director of communications and partnerships with San Antonio Youth Literacy (SAYL), when she is recruiting reading buddies.

Where would any of us be without reading? A student would not be in class, a doctor woul d not be with a patient, and a mother would not be able to register her child in school. You would not be reading this article. The overwhelming majority of individuals would not be able to function in the world today without the ability to read.

San Antonio, the nation's seventh largest city, ranks 60th in the country among cities with the highest illiteracy rates.

"The city has an illiteracy rate of 12.5 percent; this means one in eight adults can't read what you are writing right now," said Flannigan.

These statistics challenge San Antonians to new heights of civic responsibility. Improving reading outcomes has been part of the SA2020 initiative since it was developed in 2010.

Last year, UT Chancellor William H. McRaven called for all of the UT system institutions to step-up their game in improving literacy rates statewide. UTSA had a head start on this challenge, given the multitude of initiatives already underway in the community.

UTSA hosts a series of programs strategically designed to increase literacy rates for pre-K to 12th grade students. One way the university is intensifying its efforts is through service- learning courses.

This past spring semester, a UTSA history course partnered with SAYL, a nonprofit that provides one-on-one reading assistance to elementary children. In 2015-16, 43 students volunteered with SAYL's Reading Buddy program, leading to a 300 percent increase in the number of volunteers from UTSA over the previous academic year. UTSA professor Kolleen Guy taught the European Cultural History course that partnered with SAYL. An instructor in the history department and honors college, Guy often integrates service learning as part of her course work.

"If you want to change the world, you change your community," she said. One-third of her interdisciplinary classes have a service learning aspect, which means each student will spend one hour a week for an entire semester engaged in the community. Thirty-six of her students volunteered with SAYL during the spring semester. In her course, students learned about literacy over the course of European history. They explored the consistent challenges and benefits to the populations that have or do not have access to the ability to read and comprehend material.

"The biggest takeaway for me was seeing progress with my students,"said Mark Cohen '16, Guy's student and a recent graduate of UTSA.

"One in particular told me he was afraid of reading in class because he thought he may mess up. It felt good to be able to create an environment that allowed him to feel comfortable making mistakes," said Cohen. "This experience helped connect the class in different ways with people, and it taught me not everyone learns the same way."

Guy wanted her students to experience a valuable lesson:"We take reading for granted, I needed my students to have a hands-on experience and learn about the importance of this subject. They saw a program that works and became informed and aware citizens,"she said.

Having someone that can help a student learn to read is crucial. At UTSA ,the Center for the Inquiry of Transformative Literacies program, Roadrunner Readers, is designed to give children access to a reading tutor.

The CITL was originally established as Plaza de Lectura in 1999, with a mission to aid San Antonio children in reading and writing. There are three key efforts the center pursues to achieve its goals.

UTSA Volleyball student athletes Kasey Kiefer (left) and Jessica Waldrip (right) participated in Rowdy Readers for four years.

UTSA Volleyball student athletes Kasey Kiefer (left) and Jessica Waldrip (right) participated in Rowdy Readers for four years.

First, the Roadrunner Reader program consists of upper-level pre-service teachers and graduate students at UTSA providing tutoring on-site to elementary school children. A total of 800 pre-service teachers have served 2,000 students over the lifetime of the project.

Second, the center took its inhouse program to be implemented in new schools. The Roadrunner Reader Initiation piloted in May 2015, is CITL's effort to outsource their highly successful in-house reading program. This approach started when Somerset Independent School District in Somerset, Texas, reached out for help with declining reading scores of their students. The center started an afterschool research-based program focused on reading comprehension within an inquiry-based environment to increase children's critical thinking abilities. This pilot served 84 children and the improvements were quickly noticed. This year, the program will expand to various Somerset ISD campuses, including pre-K to 12th grade schools, and the district's Early College Leadership Academy.

"We have inquiry kits that we choose by themes to help the kids increase in their reading levels," said Marcy Wilburn, coordinator of services at CITL. "The selection of books in the inquiry kits are meant to help the student develop a strong social justice component. For instance, a student can be reading of sharks and their ocean life, but once they populate an inquiry chart with questions with their reading buddy, they will be learning and discussing about water pollution."

The inquiry kits are thought-provokers.

"When we see a child make that connection between what they are reading and their lives, or something they can relate to in real life, they step aside from reading as a task. This moment is when children start seeing literacy in the world," said Wilburn.

The kits allow a structure for the Roadrunner Reader and the student to follow. First, there is a reading assessment, then a reading outline or guided reading, then an inquiry chart must be completed and last, questions are developed for small group discussions, which enhance students' reading comprehension.

Furthermore, the center kicked off a reading summer camp this year. CITL hosted one camp at the Downtown Campus serving 25 children. The second was held at Mission Library and served 16 students. This camp received support from the Mission San Jose Neighborhood Association and District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran.

The center's mission is to promote a more humanizing approach to literacy and its instruction. Its plans are to use literacy development and research as methods to improve education levels for children and youth in the San Antonio metropolitan area and Texas.

Aligning with the CITL's efforts, the UTSA Athletics department values the importance of civic engagement for its student athletes and began the Rowdy Readers program in 2011 with area schools.

"Rowdy Readers teaches our student-athletes the importance of giving back and how to be service-minded leaders," aid Lynn Hickey, director of UTSA Athletics. "Throughout the years, I have seen our student athletes receive as much as they give from this program." Hickey is a strong advocate and supporter for the UTSA Rowdy Readers Program.

Rowdy Readers partners all athletic teams at UTSA with an elementary or middle school each semester. Student athletes help one or two kids every week with their reading skills for 20 minutes.

A UTSA student tutors her mentee during Reading Café, hosted at the Center for Inquiry of Transformative Literacies. Photo: Jo Ann Jones

A UTSA student tutors her mentee during Reading Café, hosted at the Center for Inquiry of Transformative Literacies. Photo: Jo Ann Jones

"Seeing the kids progress is pretty awesome," said Kasey Kiefer, UTSA senior and volleyball player who has been involved in the program for the last four years. "They start getting more confident and stop second guessing themselves when they pronounce big words out loud."

Jessica Waldrip, also a Roadrunner Reade and UTSA volleyball said: "At the end of the year, students tell us they had fun and that they learned a lot. This is truly validating because it lets us know that taking them away from class for reading support has a positive impact."

UTSA's volleyball and soccer teams have been adamant about participating in this program. They have bilingual players who tutor Spanish speaking children. This year, the women's soccer team received the Jefferson Middle School Sweeps Mentoring Award for their participation in Rowdy Readers and other mentoring activities at the school.

Collectively, these UTSA literacy initiatives give children access to books, to a reading partner and to comprehension and critical thinking skills. Throughout history, populations that are illiterate have been the most vulnerable.

"Literacy changes lives and has the ability to raise individuals out of poverty," said Guy. "In essence, literacy empowers individuals to take control of their education and destiny."

These literacy initiatives help San Antonio make a dent in the high rate of illiteracy. UTSA will continue to do its part to help achieve the SA2020 vision of 85 percent of third grade students meeting the STARR test standards by 2020.

High literacy rates will take this city to stronger economic prosperity and lower rates of poverty for the next generation.This is the impact UTSA strives for by offering these literacy services to our community.

"Where would people be if they couldn't read?" Is no longer the question at UTSA. Rather, we are asking, where will reading take us?