Young Superheroes Exercise Their Reading Muscles


It’s a beautiful, sun-drenched day and Oakland is partying. More than half a million people have lined the streets around Lake Merritt to celebrate the Golden State Warriors winning the NBA championship. A few miles away, in East Oakland, a crowd of parents and some young superheroes are enjoying a different kind of celebration—one that’s all about the pleasure and power of reading.

Oakland Reads 2020’s Summer Reading Celebration is in full swing in the courtyard of the new Castlemont Community Transformation School on the campus of Castlemont High School. Betsy, a girl with a purple cape and matching face-paint, is on her ways to becoming a “summer reading superhero.” She inspects several piles of new books stacked up on an outdoor table and Xavier Buster, who will be teaching kindergarten next year at the new school, offers her a copy of Tiger in My Soup. Betsy rifles through it and tells Xavier she loves Dr. Suess stories.

In a classroom at the back of the courtyard, parents and young children are seated in a circle around Dulce Torres, a community literacy specialist with Raising a Reader, listening raptly as she reads from Where The Wild Things Are. A girl named Mimi comes up next to Dulce and demonstrates a wild thing’s roar. All the kids join in to gnash their terrible teeth and show off their terrible claws.

Most of the families have come here before to take part in Room to Bloom, a three-morning-a-week early-reading program for children up to 5 years old. Mooeh Paw says she came with her 2-year, 8-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, “to get a book, play, and make a mask.” Cesario Landeros has brought his grandson, Aroni, who will turn 4 in September and says his favorite book is Carwash.


“I learned that babies hear everything when you’re pregnant and I wanted Adrian to learn.”

In August, the Castlemont charter school will open an elementary and a middle school, and is taking part in today’s efforts, sponsored by Oakland Reads, and launching its own series of summer programs to help incoming students get ready. The school is the product of a community effort led by Youth UpRising, an East Oakland nonprofit working for social justice and community empowerment. Its goal: to improve educational achievement in a community where 41 percent of residents have less than a high school education and 60 percent of students drop out of school.

“We want to launch aggressively and give our kids a leg up on the school year,” says Breton Harris, operations manager for the two schools. “We’re really passionate about preventing summer slide.” That’s the key goal for the summer push—and today’s kickoff event. Research shows that if children stop reading over the summer, they can fall back in their reading progress by up to two months. Oakland Reads 2020 believes the key to defeating the summer slide is to provide opportunities, tools—and books—to help kids keep reading over the summer months.

Flor Chavez, who lives a few blocks away, is there with her two children, 1- year, eight-month-old Sarahi and 1-month-old Adrian. Chavez started coming to Room to Bloom when she was three months pregnant because “I learned that babies hear everything when you’re pregnant and I wanted Adrian to learn.”

Chavez grew up in Mexico and came with her family to Oakland when she was 13. Growing up, her mother didn’t have time to read to her and didn’t push her kids to read, even though she had graduated from high school and even taken some college classes. In Oakland, Chavez made it through high school but got no further. She wants her kids to go to college.

“I know that from 0 to 5 is the most important phase for their little brains,” she says. “I want them to have more opportunities than me, to have something better.”

The goal of Room to Bloom is “to promote early literacy and language,” says Carla Jaso, a Family Advocate and Site Coordinator with the program. “We’re always trying to expose our families to the relationship part with their child so they come to a place where they feel safe using social and emotional language with their kids. We’re like a safe haven for early learning.”

Back outside in the courtyard, percussionist QB Williams starts playing on a conga drum, and kids and parents quickly drift over to his canopy to listen and join in. He does a call-and-response, counting out numbers that the kids repeat. He then segues to a picture book about fruit. “Mangoes,” he sings; “mangoes,” the kids sing back. Peaches, strawberries and nectarines are also invoked in song. Then things get really exciting.

QB Williams opens a suitcase and pulls out one percussion instrument after another. “In my hand, I have…bongos,” he sings, and he hands out a pair of bongos. “A cláve…a guiro…a cabasa.” Pretty soon, all the kids—and a couple of parents—have instruments in their hands and are beating, shaking and scratching away.

Rakarra Williams and LaSean Boyd, Sr. are holding their 7-month-old son, LaSean Jr., who’s dressed in a green bib that proclaims him a snackosaurus and is banging with both hands on a conga drum.

“We’re already reading to him so he gets to know sounds and gets used to hearing my voice,” Rakarra Williams says. “It will help build his vocabulary in the future.”

Then it’s time for the instruments to go away. The children pass them back to Williams and he returns them to his suitcase. The young superheroes have learned some new words and will go home with some new books.

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