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Since sixth-grader Sonam Dolma began the after-school Star Program at the Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settlement House in September, she said her reading is “much better.” Dolma, who attends IS 126 in Long Island City, participates in a program connecting art and dance to boosting her reading skills, she said.

Dolma is one of about 250 sixth-graders whom the City’s Department of Youth and Community Development plan to serve this year through its Adolescent Literacy Program. The DYCD celebrated the launch of the $3 million program last week. Funded by a federal Community Services Block Grant, the program targets low-income public middle school students who read below grade level. Community-based organizations will work with current sixth-graders after school over the next three years to help them improve their reading and prepare them for the increased study demands of high school.

DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav said the program is special because it focuses on sixth, seventh and eighth graders, a group that has been dubbed “the missing middle.” Mullgrav said many of DYCD’s programs focus on adults or younger children, but is now focusing on the “transition from learning to read to reading to learn that so many young people find challenging.” She said DYCD had to do more for this group because it receives less individualized instruction in school and begins more serious study in those grades.

The eight community organizations that were awarded contracts by DYCD to implement the program engage students in activities ranging from creating personal web pages to writing to theater. Students participate in research-based and project-based literacy instruction, according to DYCD. “There is a lot of emphasis on keeping young people interested and keeping them interested in reading,” Mullgrav said of the program.

Dolma and the 29 other students she attends the after school program with are using “Thinking Reader, ” a computer program that talks. Bridget Edwards, who is the program coordinator for the Adolescent Literacy Program at Riis Settlement House, said “Thinking Reader” is a great tool for students learning English as their second language and for students who are “auditory learners.” “By hearing the written word that’s how you learn to put words together and learn to write well,” Edwards said.

Students were chosen to participate based on recent standardized reading test scores, according to DYCD Senior Advisor Richard Fish. Fish said students in the program read at about a fourth-grade level, but do not have learning disabilities. The organizations work closely with principals from the schools they chose to work with, Mullgrav said.

Although the program has a strong educational focus, DYCD partnered with community-based organizations because of the long-term relationships families often have with them, Mullgrav said. Such organizations “play a key role that’s complementary to schools in that they are in the community, they know the family’s needs and can make referrals for other kinds of services,” she said. A math teacher at IS 126 for eight years and a Riis employee for almost four, Edwards works with some students for the three years they attend the school.

DYCD worked with the state Education Department to develop requests for proposals for the program. It also sought help from focus groups and the Carnegie Foundation. Enrollment for the program is in the beginning stages, with limited slots to maintain the goal of offering individualized instruction, Mullgrav said. Fish added that one of DYCD’s main goals for the program is to document student progress in the program and identify successes in improving literacy. [10/30/06]

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