Thomascene Washington doesn’t need to read numerous reports and studies to know her grandchildren need access to early-childhood literacy programs if they’re going to thrive in school. So when she heard Jackson State University offered such a program, she didn’t waste time registering her twin grandsons, Malik and Micah McKiness.
The twins live in Washington Addition, the target community of the Washington Addition Prenatal Early Childhood Project, funded through a $1.6 million, five-year grant from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation.
The project focuses on building human capacity and empowering individuals and families in the West Jackson neighborhood located near the university. Along with providing literacy activities for children, parents are informed on the best practices to nurture their children through the learning process.
The initiative, which is in the grant’s final year of funding, also works to assist parents with job placement and opportunities for educational advancement.
Dr. Angela Gobar is the program director. Her staff includes Thomas W. Williams and Cynthia Azogini, both project coordinators. The project’s goal is to help transform Washington Addition and improve the residents’ lives.
About 75 families were enrolled in the program, with about 40 families participating, Gobar said.
Ms. Washington describes the program as a blessing.
“I was looking for something for my grandkids to do. One of the main benefits is that the program has such good teachers. They also care about people,” Washington said. “If we didn’t have a ride, Ms. Cynthia would come and get us.”
She said Malik and Michah were enrolled in the Harris-Gambrell Reading Center, located in the College of Education and Human Development.
“Their mother already had a computer so they knew how to use one, but after going to the center, their computer skills blossomed. They were taught the meaning of words and how to pronounce words,” she said.
Gobar said creative approaches were used in the implementation of the project.
“After three and a half years of working with these families, there have been challenges and successes and improvements. We utilized many of the ideas that were put forth in the grant and in the course of the implementation, we came up with customized training and services that were needed.”
Lack of access to early childhood literacy programs is a nationwide problem. According to the U.S. Department of Education, less than a third of 4-year-olds in poverty attend a high-quality preschool program, and the gap is more pronounced in low-income communities.
Washington said JSU’s program has made learning fun for her grandkids. Some of the activities included field trips, science camps, a visit to the Farmer’s Market, and the Raising Readers Book Club, a three-day program in which volunteers throughout the West Jackson community read stories with themes around fairness, honor, courage, kindness, resillence and perseverance. Each day, student were allowed to take a book home to begin building their own library.
In July, Gobar and her team took families to the Estuarium/Sea Lab at Dauphin Island and the Bird Sanctuary on Mobile Bay off the Alabama Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The families walked along a beach trail, touched Manta rays and learned about sharks.
Washington said her 5-year-old grandsons were impressed by the experience.
“They really enjoyed the trip to Alabama because it was a bus ride. They talked about it for days and days afterward,” she said.
The project has motivated more than just the children it serves. Evonyn Travis, a single parent, has decided to continue her education by attending a community college.
Travis said a conversation she had with Azogini — in which the project coordinator asked her how she expected to succeed without an education – resonated with her. Travis is currently majoring in General Studies at Hinds Community College and hopes to eventually receive training and a degree in the nursing field.
The Washington Addition Program led to spinoff of another program in the College of Education and Human Development. Dubbed Little Tigers, the program is open to residents across the Jackson metro area. The Washington Addition project only targeted children from that neighborhood. However, there was a lot of interest from families outside of Washington Addition, said Dr. Ingrad Smith, College of Education associate dean and co-project director.
“We didn’t want to turn anyone away,” Smith said.
Little Tigers operates on donations and offers families monthly weekend sessions that include book giveaways and other activities.