For seven years, the Literacy Fellows of the Batten Leadership Program have had a long and vibrant instructional partnership with Tidewater Park Elementary School in Norfolk. Once a week during the school year, the fellows and the program's director, Dr. David Kidd traveled to the school to offer reading and writing support at the Boys and Girls Club afterschool program.
The partnership between the schools has built mentoring relationships, fueled passion for writing in both the fellows and their younger mentees, and produced several books of student essays.
All of that ground to a halt in spring 2020, when the Covid pandemic sent students into distance learning. Even as Norfolk Academy students returned to in-person learning in the fall, Norfolk Public Schools remained in distance learning. Attempts to connect foundered, and even the schools' innovation couldn't bridge the gap.
Enter Preface, a Georgia-based initiative dedicated to fostering childhood literacy. With its innovative and entirely virtual infrastructure, Preface set up online sessions and provided a library of e-books for the Literacy Fellows to use. In addition, Preface provided training in how to use the virtual resources more effectively, part of a program that trains “Ambassadors" in reading and writing instruction to promote literacy.
“Preface was the answer to our problem," said Dr. David Kidd, director of the Literacy Fellows and Upper School English Teacher. “They helped us transition to online operations and train our students to be Literacy Ambassadors. Preface provided great online library resources and helped sort out the complex schedules of two different schools."
In celebration of the partnership, Preface's founder and executive director, Jonathan “JT" Wu, came to Norfolk for an event to donate 150 new children's books to the library at Tidewater Park Elementary; the book titles were carefully selected to highlight the diversity of backgrounds and experiences in the Norfolk community. The organization also donated thousands in healthcare resources from “Earthbaby," including hand sanitizer in portable bottles.
The school's library media specialist, Stephanie Trzeciakiewicz, facilitated the meetings online, and she noted how much the students involved--many of whom attended the celebration--would look forward to the weekly reading sessions. “Having that individual, one-on-one attention from the ambassadors makes them feel special and helps increase their learning skills while fostering their social-emotional learning," she said. “They are often logged on and in the waiting room before I even start the session."
In response to questions from Tidewater Park Elementary Principal Dr. Sharon Phillips, the young learners shared what they enjoyed most about working with the older students. “I liked the way they were respectful," one said. Another noted, “They were really helpful to us."
Norfolk Academy senior Blake Brown, who has been working with the students throughout his four years as a Literacy Fellow, said that the Preface interface galvanized learning. “It was awesome seeing the children of Tidewater Park, after not being able to work with them for a year. It was great seeing their smiles as they progressed through the books." He noted that the Epic platform had a wide array of e-books, both in terms of topics and reading levels.
Kidd noted that the partnership began serendipitously--a Teaching Associate at Norfolk Academy, Katie O'Dell, knew Wu when they were undergraduates at Princeton; she had followed his nonprofit work at Preface and suggested the collaboration. O'Dell, who was on hand for the celebration, said the speed of the launch into collaborative work was astonishing, and it was a testament to the dedication of both adults and high school students to the young readers, particularly in a challenging pandemic year.
The partnership is only just beginning, both Kidd and Wu observed, as there is more to accomplish. “I'm looking forward to a long and successful partnership with the Norfolk educational community, and I'm thrilled to continue fighting for equality through education and early childhood literacy," Wu said.