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Breaking Poverty One Children's Book at a Time

January 7, 2016

The children's book "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" and alphabet refrigerator magnets may not jump out as the solution to poverty, but these simple items in the toolbox of Hawkeye Community College's Family Literacy Program staff are a first step in breaking the cycle of generational poverty for families.

"Our prime directive is literacy education and showing how crucial that is for a family to be self-sufficient and not be dependent on another source to survive," said Sandy Jensen, director of urban centers and adult literacy at Hawkeye Community College. "The parents are their child's first teachers. We enable, empower and assist parents to really take on that critical role."

It's a role many of the participants aren't aware of as they start the educational journey for themselves and their families.

"Most of the time, parents come into the program thinking you don't start reading out loud to children until they are in school," said Sandy. "We teach them to start reading to them when they are a baby. That concept is new for a lot of our parents."

With a 2013 graduation rate in Waterloo Community Schools of 70.46 percent, nearly 20 percent lower than the Iowa average, and the influx of Burmese refugees seeking to improve their lives in their new community, the importance of the program, now in its tenth year, continues to grow, as does its popularity with the student parents. Parents enrolled in the program see its value and recruit others to join them in this life-changing program, for themselves and their children.

"A parent who is teaching their child is also cementing that knowledge better for themselves, and the child sees that the parent thinks education is important, so it is a generational transfer of information," Sandy said. "We are really affecting two generations for the same dollar with this program."

For Sandy, the truly inspiring part is seeing the students succeed.

"It's really gratifying to see parents embrace their role and see how children love that they are embracing that role," Sandy said. "If you have a parent who wasn't doing a lot of reading aloud to their children and they start, they find kids just want time with mom or dad. It's wonderful family bonding time that children crave. It's just an aha moment."