Nonprofit program tackles literacy among Queens youth

By Tom Momberg

Reading and writing proficiency is something educators are always talking about to see where their students can improve.

About 31.3 percent of Queens students in grades three through eight demonstrated proficient levels on last year’s state-standardized English Language Arts exams. Although borough kids beat the city and state averages, that number is really low—lower than the 38.1 percent of students who scored at least proficient on their state math exams.

One Astoria-based nonprofit has started to tackle literacy for elementary and middle school students. By driving kids and teens to success in its summer and after-school program, Reading 4 Smiles has grown from an enrollment of 10 students five years ago to helping well over 100 today.

Founder Yawne Robinson grew up in the city Housing Authority’s Queensbridge houses, where she saw a need for literacy support and first introduced the program there. She works as a data analyst for Our World Neighborhood Charter School in Astoria, and now takes in students from across Queens who have an array of literacy needs. She is trying to raise money to either expand to other school buildings or to look for space of her own.

“This also allows me to peek into what our schools are not doing, and why we still have such a big literacy gap just among (students),” Robinson said. “Writing and reading are things that if you don’t do them often, you lose them.”

Program assistant Caprise Scott had enrolled his son Amani Scott in the Saturday program for a couple years “just so his brain wouldn’t rot on the weekend. He’s a smart kid, but his grades even improved,” he said. “I can see Reading 4 Smiles as a model for the future. It serves an ethnically diverse population and does it well.”

And with space provided by the charter school she works for and funding that relies almost solely on private donations, Robinson and her team have developed programs that touch on everything from financial literacy, health, public speaking, theater, world culture and science.

The programs are split by grade level and are all-inclusive for students with varying language backgrounds and reading abilities.

“These topics give them another aspect into learning. For me, it’s more about putting them in a position to think about their future,” Robinson said. “A lot of our activities we create in-house allow them to dive in no matter what their reading level is. That’s the fun part about it.”

Robinson said most of the kids her program serves are either immigrants or come from low-income backgrounds. But even then, she said, the program means different things for different students, some of whom are just looking to get ahead and advance their literary abilities.

But when these kids of varying abilities are all learning together, Robinson said the best outcomes are produced. And teenagers who are hired on for the summer through a city grant program get paid to mentor the kids through the program, making sure every student gets some one-on-one attention.

Patricia McSharry, whose fifth-grade son Timothy Huber attends Our World and has been enrolled in Reading 4 Smiles for three years, said she has seen tremendous improvement in his writing ability.

“I think boys just have a lot going on in their heads and it’s difficult to put down their thoughts in a clear and concise manner,” McSharry said. “He is an advanced reader, but writing has always been a struggle for him … While our schools do a great job, I think learning to communicate effectively cannot be overstressed.”

Reading 4 Smiles serves children from public or charter schools in kindergarten through seventh grade. Programs are donation based—a minimum of $5 for a two-hour session.

After-school programs operate every Monday and Wednesday and enrollment is on a semester basis, in addition to the Saturday program which stands by itself. The summer programs are held Monday through Thursday during July and August. To enroll for next semester, call 347-927-7323.

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomb[email protected]nglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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