Turning Readers Into Leaders

July 12, 2018
Photo by Olivia LaViolette

It’s summertime and the school bells are no longer ringing, but more than 400 students from Title I schools continue to board school buses. 

All over Los Angeles, kindergartners through eighth-graders hop out of those buses onto the grounds of several Jewish institutions, and they’re all greeted with enthusiastic cheers. They’re served breakfast, followed by a “Reading Rally” featuring cheers, chants, a read-aloud session and a visit by a community guest. 

Welcome to a typical morning in the Wise Readers to Leaders (WRTL) Summer Literacy and Enrichment Program.

From June 25 through Aug. 3, children accepted into the free WRTL summer program hone their academic skills. Founded in 2012 as a Stephen Wise Temple Outreach Program by the organization’s CEO, Andrea Sonnenberg, and Rabbi Ron Stern in collaboration with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), WRTL works to close the achievement gap facing lower-income kids.

American Jewish University, Stephen Wise Temple, Milken Community Schools and Wilshire Boulevard Temple serve as campuses for the program. “We figured there’s all these incredible Jewish institutions around town that are sitting empty over the summer, why not make use of them?” Sonnenberg told the Journal.

The program is designed to prevent the academic “summer slide.”

“[The kids] — who predominantly are Latino and who can’t normally afford access to these types of camps — work hard all year long on their literacy,” Sonnenberg said, “and then come summer, they lose much more than the two months. It takes them the whole year to get themselves back to the level they were at.”

When WRTL began in 2012, it was called Wise Freedom School Partners, had only eight children in attendance and used the CDF’s curriculum. Today, it’s an independent organization with a literacy curriculum designed by a team of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teachers. 

“We wanted our curriculum to be cross-cultural,” Sonnenberg said. “One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that we’re able to [build] bonds between the Latino and the Jewish community in Los Angeles.” 

To this end, many of the books read in the program are by Latino authors and about Latino families. 

“We wanted our curriculum to be cross-cultural. One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that we’re able to [build] bonds between the Latino and the Jewish community in Los Angeles.” — Andrea Sonnenberg 

“It’s important that they see aspects of their own lives or characteristics of themselves within the story,” Middle School Site Coordinator Nicole Soriano said. However, there are also books about Jewish and other cultures. “We want the kids to be exposed to everything,” Sonnenberg said.

Each day at the summer camp, the children — called scholars —  improve their literacy skills through a variety of programs, including “Drop Everything and Read” time, which gives the scholars 15 minutes to read on their own from any book in their classroom library. Each week they are allowed to take home and keep one book. 

“It’s really important to have books in the home,” Sonnenberg explained. “There’s a strict correlation between the number of books in the home and academic success.”

The scholars are provided with lunch and time for recess, after which their afternoon is filled with various activities. Some afternoons they learn science from a special curriculum designed by DJ Kast, one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” honorees on its annual list of change-makers. They also learn things such as coding, journalism, music and sports. “It’s a broader education than just literacy,” Sonnenberg said. “We’re helping the whole child.” 

Because physical education and music classes are not provided by Title I schools, WRTL ensures that the scholars are exposed to these activities. Weekly field trips to places such as the Skirball Cultural Center and Underwood Farms are also used to broaden the scholars’ education.

To help with these daily activities, more than 150 Jewish teenagers volunteer throughout the summer as “Junior Literacy Leaders.” “[Having the teenage volunteers] spend time with and make connections with the scholars is incredibly important,” Sonnenberg said.

Junior Literacy Leader Aaron Tizabgar said he felt that connection while on a program field trip to the park. “I spent the whole three hours playing soccer and it was amazing to see how happy I made the kids,” he said. “I would look around and see a group of 30 little kids smiling and laughing and having an incredible time. It made me really proud of what I was doing.”

The concept of tikkun olam inspires the organization, and every teenage volunteer must explain what tikkun olam means to them on their application. 

“What I consider to be one of the core obligations of Jews is to make a difference,” Stern said. “We live in a world where the overwhelming tendency is toward selfishness and self-absorption, and what I try to show these kids is that Judaism doesn’t advocate that position.”

Indeed, WRTL’s motto is “Healing the world, one scholar at a time.” 

“I’m very proud of the connection that we’ve been able to make with the Latino community,” Sonnenberg said, “to bring these two communities together and sort of realize that we’re all really the same and that we can work together and heal the world.” 

Yet WRTL’s work does not end with the summer program. Thanks to partnerships with the Los Angeles, Stanley Mosk, Fulbright and Garden Grove Elementary schools, along with 17 public middle schools, WRTL hosts year-round parent workshops on topics such as child development, education, finances, drug prevention and immigration. A choir currently is being established with the scholars to perform year-round at synagogues and churches, and the Remote Reading and Leading programs enable scholars to keep in touch with volunteers throughout the year.

“My vision really is to license the curriculum in Jewish institutions all over the country,” Sonnenberg said, “where there are underserved neighboring communities, and using our curriculum to help more kids.” 

Nicole Levi is a senior at Palisades High School and a Jewish Journal summer intern. 

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