Maria Hernandez, education and resource coordinator for CityGate Dream Center — a community center based in Burlington that serves a majority Spanish-speaking population — said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alamance County changed the way students learn, especially those from Spanish-speaking households. So last year, the Dream Center began implementing the “Book Nook” program, aiming to improve bilingual reading skills in the county’s pre-kindergarten to sixth-grade students.
“During the pandemic, I think a lot of students fell behind and were really struggling,” Hernandez said. “Online learning was difficult enough, but then you throw in some students don’t have internet access and some students don’t have computers.”
Some students also fell behind with their schoolwork, Hernandez said, because they had parents who only spoke Spanish at home and thus were unable to understand learning material. According to the 2020 Census, 13.7% of the population in Alamance County is Hispanic, which is higher than the state average of 10% in North Carolina.
Prior to the start of the Book Nook program in 2021, Hernandez said that Burlington’s R. Homer Andrews Elementary School and Eastlawn Elementary School had reading proficiency levels of 31% and 21%, respectively.
In response, the Dream Center partnered with Alamance Achieves, a nonprofit organization that works to prepare Alamance County children for their education and careers. Together, they found ways to support education outside of the classroom, through parental and community involvement.
Jazmin Campbell ’22 is an Elon Service Fellow who has been working at Alamance Achieves for a year where she leads a parent engagement group and supports the Book Nook program.
“We can get more involved inside the school system through parents because we know that they’re really catalysts for change within the school system,” Campbell said.
Alamance Achieves invested in the national Book Nook program in 2021 and chose the Dream Center as a site along with The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club of Alamance County and Positive Attitude Youth Center, although the Dream Center is the only bilingual program.
In the past, The Dream Center has offered 12 reading sessions per week, but because of new grants, more spots will soon be available in the program. The Book Nook program is set to relaunch in less than a month.
Lexy Roberts, executive director of Alamance Achieves, said the program is a way to support learning outside of the classroom.
“We think about what parts of education equity really matter to our community and what a vision for the future of Alamance is,” Roberts said.
Since its implementation in 2021, Roberts said that 161 students have completed over 1,113 sessions and gained over 19 reading levels — the metric used to determine proficiency.
Hernandez said students have improved on their reading skills and recalled one student in particular who improved by six letter grades within a month.
“She was really struggling at school. Her grades were slipping in her reading classes and so coming here, I think it really helped her,” Hernandez said. “She was a good reader. I think it was just finding the support is all she needed.”
In each Book Nook session, students are paired with others of a similar reading level and asked to indicate how they are feeling at the time, which Roberts said allows facilitators to assess how students are feeling aside from their educational needs.
“We’ve actually been able to utilize this to share how students perceive their overall well being,” Roberts said.
The Book Nook program is offered in eight languages, but as a bilingual site, CityGate Dream Center offers English and Spanish as its two primary languages. Students are able to choose one or both languages during each session.
“We know that that type of learning opportunity is more beneficial than just increasing their literacy,” Roberts said. “That overall increases their self esteem and self concept of themselves, and they can merge their two language worlds together.”
Hernandez said that because the Dream Center serves a largely Spanish-speaking community, all of its resources are bilingual.
“Whether that’s programs that we have or classes that we’re going to provide, or health resources or whatever it is,” Hernandez said. “Everything we offer, we prioritize language inclusivity, so there is always going to be a Spanish version if there is an English version.”