Education

Plush toys, books and kids: Yes, there’s a serious goal here

Books and buddies aim to help reading

Nations Ford and Queens University collected about 500 stuffed animals for Kindergarten to Second grade students on the premise that reading with stuffed toys helps young children engage. Rex, the mascot for Queens University of Charlotte helped
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Nations Ford and Queens University collected about 500 stuffed animals for Kindergarten to Second grade students on the premise that reading with stuffed toys helps young children engage. Rex, the mascot for Queens University of Charlotte helped

It could have been another holiday feel-good moment Tuesday, as hundreds of 4- to 8-year-olds unwrapped books and plush toys in their classrooms at Nations Ford Elementary.

But this was giving with a goal.

Queens University of Charlotte is working with faculty at the south Charlotte public school to boost skills among beginning readers.

“If the kids have a purpose for reading and someone to read to they are going to retain and they are going to be better readers,” said Amy Thornburg, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher who’s associate dean of the Queens Cato School of Education.

So Thornburg and her students, who have spent three months raising donations for the books and stuffed “buddies,” visited prekindergarten through second-grade classrooms Tuesday handing out cellophane-wrapped bundles.

“I want you to take this buddy home and I want you to read to this buddy every day for 20 minutes,” Thornburg said. “It’s going to make you smarter and it’s going to make your buddy smarter.”

Every school in CMS is working to improve reading, but Nations Ford faces special challenges. The school is surrounded by apartment complexes that are home to refugees fleeing violence in Honduras and El Salvador. Most are still learning English and live in poverty. Enrollment is growing rapidly, and mobile classrooms ring the building.

26 percent of Nations Ford students in grades 3-5 passed last year’s reading exam

70 percent come from homes where English isn’t the first language

91 percent come from low-income homes

Principal Alejandra Garcia knows some people resent paying to educate the children of immigrants who enter the country illegally. But she tells her staff the children’s journeys to Charlotte add urgency to their mission: “Half of them risked their lives to be in your seats.”

The Queens students working with Nations Ford include eight teachers at the school who are pursuing master’s degrees. Working with the school ensures that undergrad and grad students get real-life experience.

Garcia and her faculty hope to see gains on state reading tests. Only 26 percent of the students in grades 3 to 5 passed last year, though they showed strong growth over their previous year’s scores, Garcia said.

On Tuesday, though, it was enough to see almost 500 kids beaming as they cuddled monkeys, dogs and bears and cracked open new books.

“It’s just to build their love for reading,” Garcia said. “We bombard them every day with books, books, books.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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