By Ron Leir
EAST NEWARK –
Some folks probably were scratching their heads after seeing adults and children toddle into East Newark Public School while dressed in PJs in the early evening hours Thursday, Jan. 22.
No, it wasn’t for a sleepover. And it didn’t signal the opening of the first-ever night school session.
Give up? It was “Pajamarama.”
But nobody was sleeping, a visitor from The Observer can assure you. Instead, there was a whole lot of reading going on. Parents, teachers and staff were reading aloud – some in Spanish and some in English – from age-appropriate books to students in their classes for 20 minutes.
After a brief Q & A, everybody gathered in the school’s tiny cafeteria to partake in milk and cookies. Kids and parents also had a chance to scour shelves and pick out some favorite reading matter on the next-to-last day of the school’s PTO-sponsored Book Fair being held that week.
The event, Superintendent/ Principal Patrick Martin said, was designed “to enhance reading and community building” – themes that Martin has been sounding, literally, since he was hired as the elementary school’s new administrator last May.
Because the primary language of a huge majority of the students is something other than English – mostly Spanish or Portuguese – Martin has been hammering away at raising sensitivity to the importance of getting hooked on the printed word.
And it seems to be working, he said.
Two appreciative parents, who also happen to be members of the East Newark Board of Education, were Johanna Lopez, also president of the school’s PTO, and Jessica Diaz, PTO treasurer.
“I love it,” Lopez said. “This is something my son, a sixth-grader, was really looking forward to doing. It’s good for the children socially. They feel cozy, comfortable in their pajamas and it will make them love school even more.”
Diaz, who came with her two daughters, Leanna and Isabella, readily agreed, saying, “It’s something new that they’ve never experienced before.”
Lopez said the teachers encourage parents to do reading at home to their children and that’s a good thing, she added, because sometimes kids can too easily get wrapped up in playing electronic games and miss out on a good book, which is a shame because “reading is contagious.”
And the Book Fair, Diaz said, is a great resource for kids to feed that reading habit, with selections “that fit everybody’s budget.”
So Martin does what he can to promote students’ interest in the written word. “Our scores [in language arts standardized tests] are very poor. We average 25 to 30% passing so we’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
And with the introduction of the state-mandated PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers) test this school year, the challenge of improving those scores seems daunting, Martin acknowledged.
Still, he said, the state should cut East Newark’s kids some slack. “We – administration and instructional staff – have a healthy respect for PARCC but we don’t let it dictate our educational program in our school. Kids here come from places like Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America and studies show it takes kids five years to master a language.”
That’s why parents whose command of English is limited were reading to their kids in their primary language during Pajamarama. “We don’t want to give the impression that the only language to be valued is English,” Martin said. “It’s important that people are not made to feel ashamed of their native heritage.”
At the same time, he said, “we are doing things to make our kids competitive.”
Case in point: On every grade level students get a nightly homework assignment to read one or more chapters in a book they’re reading for English class, (whether that happens to be “The Adventures of Stuart Little” for third-graders or “The Catcher in the Rye” for eighth-graders), and the next morning, they’ll take what Martin calls a “dip-stick quiz,” five questions that, typically, require one-word answers, designed so that teachers can find out if they read the material and if they understood what they read, Martin said.
Then there’s the Ambassador program, which Martin – with key input from school psychologist Shelley Harrison – implemented at the start of the fall term: one-on-one after-school tutorials with seven older students who volunteer – with teacher approval – to team with seven of the younger kids – especially those with language issues – who’ve been having difficulty keeping up with their daily doses of homework in reading and math.
That program has proven so popular – and effective – that “we’ve expanded from seven pairs of students to 14,” Martin said.
When the Ambassadors were surveyed by Harrison in December about what they liked best about volunteering, Martin said he figured they’d say it was being taken out by school staff to Applebee’s each month for a free lunch. Instead, he said, the most common response was that, “they enjoyed helping the younger kids and seeing them grow. So they want to do it.”
And while the school has no quantitative way to measure any possible carryover of the tutorials, Martin said teachers have generally reported seeing improvement in the younger kids’ work product. “They definitely see it as a positive and they’ve been quick to say, ‘don’t stop it.’ “