Grant money helps young Washington Elementary readers start home libraries


Fort Hays State University President Mirta M. Martin sat down in front of an assembly of Washington Elementary School students recently to read a book about Curious George -- or Jorge el Curioso. An animated 30-minute interaction took place, in English and Spanish, before the reading began.

"You need to ensure you make it your No. 1 priority to graduate, not just from high school, but from college," said Martin. "Education is the one thing that no one can take away from you ... having an education will be a critical part of your success." The children called out answers to Martin's questions that were posed in both English and Spanish.

President Martin's visit wrapped up a semester-long service-learning project directed by Dr. Valerie Zelenka, assistant professor of teacher education at FHSU, to promote literacy and prevent bullying, which the National Association of School Psychologists reports is the most common form of violence in society today. Zelenka helped FHSU's Department of Teacher Education secure an $18,000 grant from the Kansas Health Foundation's Recognition Grants program to fund a service-learning project for the prevention of bullying.

Zelenka's efforts follow the Read4Respect Program developed by the Anti-Defamation League. The program's lessons promote empathy, respect and appreciation of differences through children's literature.

The children in attendance were part of an existing, successful after-school literacy program for at-risk students. Forty-five percent of Washington Elementary students are English language learners. Zelenka's students performed formal and informal assessments of the young readers. When asked "What do you like to read at home?," many children said that they did not have books in the home. Grant funds provided six anti-bullying books for each child to keep, as well as a small bookshelf.

"Truly, I am amazed at the incredible community engagement this evening. President Martin is a role model for the families and children at Washington Elementary," said Zelenka. "They see themselves in her and, through education, what is possible in their own lives. I am very grateful to have her here this evening to share her experiences and to emphasize the importance of education."

Undergraduate students from the university's Institute of Applied Technology, led by Assistant Professor Eric Deneault, used a computer numerical controlled router to cut the bookshelves out of multi-density fiberboard. Deneault held a class competition to design the best snap-together shelving unit. "We export our 2D drawing from CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software, and it writes the G-codes and M-codes that the router understands," he said. Each bookshelf set took about 15 minutes for the machine to cut.

Deneault's students delivered materials to assemble approximately 60-65 sets of bookshelves. The shelving sets and books were distributed at the Nov. 18 reading event at Washington Elementary School.

Students who join the program next semester will also get a bookshelf and additional books. Zelenka hopes to continue the literacy program as long as possible.

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Photo identification:

Zelenka-Deneault: Dr. Valerie Zelenka, assistant professor in the College of Education and Technology, and Eric L. Deneault, assistant professor in the Institute of Applied Technology, with home library starter bookshelves for Washington Elementary students.

Mirta at Washington: President Mirta M. Martin reads to Washington Elementary School students in English and Spanish.

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