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H-E-B picks Brownsville for childhood literacy pilot project

By STEVE CLARK/The Brownsville Herald
August 18, 2011 6:59 PM

H-E-B’s main focus is selling groceries, though teaching children to read runs a close second thanks to a passion for education on the part of Charles Butt, the San Antonio-based company’s chairman and CEO.

Brownsville was chosen as the pilot city for H-E-B’s Read 3, a multi-pronged early childhood literacy project that pulls in UTB-TSC’s College of Education, the Brownsville Independent School District and local non-profit organizations. The goal is to help children get their reading skills up to snuff before entering kindergarten. "Read 3" refers to the program’s message to parents and caregivers that young children should be read to at least there times a week in order to prepare for kindergarten.

Texas has a serious challenge when it comes to early childhood education and "kinder readiness." Nearly a third of the state’s children entering first grade live in poverty, which itself drastically decreases reading proficiency and educational attainment, and raises the dropout rate. More than one in four Texas preschool children — more than half a million — aren’t read to on a regular basis, while it’s estimated that 80 percent of a person’s vocabulary is developed by the age of five.

"Kids starting kindergarten behind and don’t catch up, these are a lot of the kids that drop out," said Jill Reynolds, H-E-B public affairs manager.

Central to Read 3 is simply getting books into the hands of children and their parents. Toward that end, H-E-B plans to open a children’s literacy center at one of its Brownsville store, though the location hasn’t been determined. But it will be among 10 in-store "H-E-Buddy Centers" the company plans to open statewide. The company already has them in stores in Laredo and Tomball.

The literacy centers are stocked with children-appropriate books and feature child-sized tables and chairs in cheerful colors. The mayor might drop by on the weekends to read to the children. The Cat in the Hat might put in an appearance. When H-E-B opened its literacy center in Laredo, Reynolds said, 800 families showed up. "Junie B. Jones" of "Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus" was on hand for the event. Reynolds said the centers are a way to reach mothers who are already at H-E-B with their children.

"That’s another opportunity for kids to be read to," she said. "Parents can come in and sit down with their kids, read with their kids in this reading center in our stores."

Read 3 will also involve a book drive, with the goal of collecting 1 million books for distribution through H-E-B locations and non-profits and through the company’s Feast of Sharing events during the holidays. In the planning stages is a partnership with BISD, which would help identify young students who are struggling and provide venues for special reading sessions for those children and their parents. Read 3 aims to use undergraduate and graduate students — even faculty members — from the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College to lead these special classes, all aimed at getting Brownsville’s children ready for kindergarten.

Mary Jo Monfils, BISD assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said that while nothing has been finalized with H-E-B and more meetings are planned to hammer out the details, school district administrators are "very excited about the initiative."

"It’s really a goal of the whole city," she said. "From BISD’s standpoint it’s a wonderful opportunity to work with all the different entities that are so contributory in our community. It’s a cliché now, but the reality is the whole village has to be involved."

BISD Interim Superintendent Carl Montoya said H-E-B has been a strong supporter of the district’s students and campuses for years.

"Our school district is pleased to partner with this company in an initiative that will promote family literacy and school readiness," he said. "We thank H-E-B for working to improve our community through education."

Read 3 is a continuation of H-E-B’s focus on public education. Ten years ago, the company launched a program to recognize outstanding teachers, principals and school districts around the state, each year awarding a total of $700,000 to the various winners. Last year H-E-B began recognizing campuses for efforts to promote health and fitness and this year, concurrent with the Read 3 pilot and opening of 10 new literacy centers, H-E-B will add a childhood literacy award.

During the last legislative session Butt, H-E-B’s chairman and CEO, pushed unsuccessfully for the passage of legislation mandating pre-K education in all Texas public schools. Reynolds said one reason the company chose Brownsville for its pilot is that the district has preserved its pre-K programs even as some other districts have cut or eliminated them in the face of budget cuts.

H-E-B kicks off its Read 3 campaign with a two-week "total store event" in Brownsville beginning Sept. 7. It will include book giveaways with the store’s Combo Loco and Meal Deals, buy-one-get-one free books, and the 1 million-book drive. H-E-B Story Time, a book-of-the-month club and in-store scavenger hunts will become permanent parts of the program.

Gayle Brogdon, associate dean, certification officer and Read 3 liason for UTB-TSC’s College of Education, called the H-E-B initiative "a wonderful project" that has the wholehearted backing of College of Education Dean Miguel Escotet as well as support from UTB-TSC President Juliet V. Garcia. The program will gives the college’s students another way to fulfill their pre-service fieldwork requirements, which involves dozens of hours teaching in school classrooms during the course of earning a degree, Brogdon said.

"They’ll go out and work with these parents and the kids; it’s very much an instructional opportunity for them," he said. "It’s a way we’re trying to help give back to the community, because the community has been so supportive of the university. It’s a way to not only do that, but it provides a fertile opportunity for our students to expand their horizons and become more involved in community education and literacy activities that will be beneficial for everyone. We’re going to do our best to make it a model that can be implemented all over the state."

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