By Aaron Schrank

Editor’s note: This story originally aired on August 21, 2015

Fiorella Lazarte is an early literacy coordinator with Jackson’s Teton Literacy Center. Today, she’s driving across town to the home of one her 5-year-old students.

“We’re going to Camilo’s home,” says Lazarte. “They live in the Virginian Apartments. And the Virginian Apartments itself is an area where the working class lives.”

Camilo Farfan is one of 30 children in the center’s literacy lab. The free program serves kids who don’t have access to other preschool or daycare. Camilo—like almost all of those kids—lives in a Spanish-speaking home and will start Kindergarten this fall.

“We’re trying to increase his vocabulary in English, because he’s great in Spanish,” says Lazarte. “So we’re trying to make the transition to help him be successful at school.”

Lazarte says that success depends on empowering Camilo’s parents to be participants in his learning.

“I remember being little, my mom was like my superhero,” says Lazarte. “That’s how kids see their parents. They try to copy and learn from their parents. So, to be successful at my job, I just have to teach the children through the parents.”

Despite mounting research showing the strong connection between early child development and later academic progress, Wyoming remains one of 10 states that do not fund a pre-K program.

But the state does fund some early childhood programs. Teton Literacy Center’s family literacy program in Jackson is one of 8 around Wyoming funded by the Wyoming Community College Commission.

Teton Literacy Center launched nearly two decades ago as an adult program—helping just one native English speaker who hadn’t learned to read or write. It’s since evolved—shifting more focus to early intervention. A few years ago, the center adopted family literacy as its primary strategy.

Camilo has been in the program almost a year. He spent 9 hours per week in a classroom last school year. This summer, he’s attending practice kindergarten—and getting monthly home visits from Lazarte.

When you are learning a new skill, you’re timid. You’re afraid. You’re shy. My goal is for him to lose the fear and to feel comfortable and to believe in himself.

At Camilo’s dining room table, the 5-year-old and Lazarte start running through the names and sounds of the different letters of the alphabet. Camilo’s mother, Maria Del Carmen Sanchez, watches.

“U,” says Camilo. “Uh-uh-uh,” indicating the vowel’s sound.

“V,” he says. Then “W” and “X.”

“Facil!,” Camilo says. “Easy”

They move on to ‘sight words.’ These are words Lazarte wants Camilo to recognize just by looking at them—rather than struggling to sound them out.

She has him trace the word “run,” then write it himself, then cut out the letters “R,” “U,” and “N,” with scissors and paste them together on a piece of paper.

“The fourth step is finding the word,” says Lazarte. “Can you find the word ‘run’? Good job! You did it!”

Lazarte asks Sanchez if she’s been practicing with her son. Sanchez says yes, but only in Spanish, not English. That’s great, Lazarte says.

“If he learns in Spanish, that’s fine,” Lazarte tells Sanchez, in Spanish. “If he learns in English, that’s also fine. But the point is that he learns, right?”

Sanchez immigrated from Tlaxcala, Mexico to Jackson 10 years ago. She’s not proficient in English yet, but takes night classes as part of this program. She also joins Camilo in the classroom once a month for “parent and child together time.” They’ve been in the program almost a year.

“It’s great. It helps children learn more and it also helps the parents, too,” says Sanchez, in Spanish. “It’s helped me learn a few more words and to devote more time to him.”

Research shows huge language gaps exist between kids long before kindergarten. And it comes down to the number of words spoken and read at home—in any language.

Sanchez knows if she improves her language skills and learns some of the teaching tricks Lazarte is demonstrating today, she’ll be closer to the future she wants for Camilo.

“My only hopes are that he studies, that he becomes a professional and have opportunities that I didn’t,” says Sanchez. “And more than anything—that he’s a good boy who eventually becomes a good man.”

[AMBI: Camilo: This is a baby turtle. Fio: Turtle! You did it. High five!]

“This…is…a…baby…turtle,” Camilo reads aloud from a book about baby animals—one of a stack Lazarte leaves with his mom for future story time.

After less than an hour, Lazarte is back in her car, but Camilo’s at-home learning isn’t over.

“I really hope Maria can take what she saw and feel comfortable to do it again at home with Camilo,” Lazarte says.

Lazarte says that confidence is key for Camilo’s mom—and for Camilo.

“When you are learning a new skill, you’re timid,” says Lazarte. “You’re afraid. You’re shy. My goal is for him to lose the fear and to feel comfortable and to believe in himself.”

That will go a long way when Camilo starts Kindergarten next month at Jackson Elementary School. His family landed a lottery spot in the school’s dual-immersion program.

These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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