Turning the Page’s Community Nights encourages North Lawndale families to read, learn together

Penn Elementary grandmother Beverly Towner(left) delivers a line from a reading exercise

Penn Elementary grandmother Beverly Towner(left) delivers a line from a reading exercise

alt text By Samuel González Kelly, Arts and Culture Reporter, The Real Chi

Rising from her seat in the middle of William Penn Elementary School’s small library, a young mother looked over her shoulder, sighed, and pleaded, “Please stop taking my pencils out of my pencil box.”

She then returned to her seat to the applause of the four other women in the circle. Playing an escaped prisoner delivering a random line, she had just nailed the first exercise in Turning the Page’s Reader’s Theater parenting workshop, which was held on the evening of Sept. 18 and kicked off the nonprofit organization’s year-long series Community Nights.

For Reader’s Theater, the short program aims to teach parents how to read to their children with enthusiasm and theatrics, so that they may better comprehend the material and become fluent readers themselves. After visiting Penn, Turning the Page will bring the event to North Lawndale’s Legacy, Kellman and Sumner elementary schools.

These Community Nights directly implement the vision of Turning the Page, which, according to its website, is to “improve the education of public school students by engaging their parents and families as active and effective participants in their children’s education.” Following the tour of Reader’s Theater, Turning the Page will return to the four North Lawndale schools about once every month to facilitate more workshops covering topics like social awareness, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) and family fitness. Every workshop is followed by a free family dinner served by staff.

“We want to know what are the problem areas, how can we best support our parents.”

Turning the Page was founded in Washington D.C. in 1998 with a mission to “increase educational outcomes for [underserved] students and their families.” The organization began by opening Carpe Librum (Seize the Book) Bookstores that sold gently used books, CDs, DVDs, and records, where the profits went to supporting the program’s initiatives. In 2015, with grant money from the Steans Family Foundation, Turning the Page expanded its operations to Chicago, focusing their efforts on North Lawndale.

Jasmine Jones, the partnership manager for Turning the Page’s Chicago office, said that parent engagement groups at public schools in North Lawndale face more challenges than those in affluent neighborhoods that she’s worked in like Lincoln Park, Evergreen Park and Beverly. While schools in the latter group have fully operational Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs), many of the schools that Jones and Turning the Page work with have Parent Advisory Councils (PACs), which “aren’t as organized or developed” because of the lack of funding and community support.

Even though CPS is trying to create more opportunities for families in underserved communities through Parent Universities and Local School Councils, gaps continue to exist, Jones shared. Turning the Page tries to be that bridge between schools and parents.

“We want to know what are the problem areas, how can we best support our parents,” Jones said, as Turning the Page works directly with teachers and administration to understand how to meet parents and their children’s needs.         

The Reader’s Theater at Penn last Tuesday was the first Community Night workshop of the school year. In one room, a group of children sat coloring, while an instructor from Turning the Page asked them about their favorite subjects in school. In another classroom, the older kids (second- through fourth-graders) were engaged in a group reading about a boy who’s never short on excuses about why he didn’t complete his homework.

Back in the library, four parents and a Penn preschool teacher sat with Jones practicing a theatrical reading of a children’s book called Amazing Grace. Any signs of initial uncertainty from parents had vanished by the end of the workshop when they put on a performance of Amazing Grace for their students. The younger children sitting in front were enthralled watching their family recite their lines and vigorously act out characters. One Penn Elementary grandparent, Beverly Towner, came to the workshop at the behest of her 9-year-old granddaughter.

“It encourages them to do whatever they want to do,” Towner said. “[Parents] keep encouraging them to go on with it because [they] can do this.”