When Beth McGorry walks into bookstores in Dubuque, her first item of business is to look for diverse faces on the covers of children’s books. It’s not something she used to notice, but through her work at St. Mark Youth Enrichment, she knows how important it is for kids to be able to see themselves in the adventures they are reading about. At last year’s Back to School Bash, St. Mark partnered with Every Child/Every Promise to purchase 94 books to give away to participants for free—each featuring diverse characters.
“Kids need to be able to see themselves in the books they are reading,” said McGorry, outreach coordinator for St. Mark. “Some of the kids we serve at St. Mark have no idea what exists beyond their home, school or neighborhood they live in. Books that reflect who they are can open their minds to a whole new set of possibilities.”
St. Mark knows that if students can find books that they are passionate about, and that they can see themselves in, their love for reading and their proficiency will improve. Through their work with the Dubuque Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, they know that reading is where it all starts. If kids can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade, learning other subjects becomes extremely difficult. This is just one of the ways that St. Mark is setting all of its students up for success through their before- and after-school programs, and summer programs.
Another way that St. Mark helps its students succeed is through the use of conscious discipline, a curriculum aimed at teaching social-emotional skills. By using these strategies, students are able to respond to daily conflict in a way that allows them to be present in the classroom and continue learning.
Beth has many memories of how these skills have helped their students succeed, including one story of a little boy who learned how to regulate his emotions with the use of a small pinwheel. He had been suspended from the bus for 14 days straight for his behavior, and at the beginning of summer after learning these skills he went three weeks at their summer program without any incidences. Having these skills allowed him to be present at program every day, focus on his work and continue to learn.
Another boy she recalled came from a home where his mom had not finished high school.
“He wants to go to college now. His mind is open to so many opportunities and they are available to him because he is a calmer kid,” said McGorry.
St. Mark also understands that these skills are not only a benefit to the children they serve, but also the parents. Serving kids in kindergarten through fifth grade from many different backgrounds, the staff know that many of the kids may come from homes that are ever-changing and stressful for a multitude of reasons. Helping kids manage that stress is important, but it’s also critical to teach those social-emotional skills to parents as well. They have held sessions with their families on conscious discipline, and have also brought in outside experts like Unified Therapy to do training with parents.
“Sometimes no one ever told them how to be parents, and we get to be supportive of that,” said McGorry. “We can help them be compassionate and supportive parents. If we can build better families, we know that we are building better kids.”
As a network member of Inclusive Dubuque, St. Mark models what it means to be an inclusive organization. Inclusion is a core principle embedded in the organization. Staff members treat everyone with respect, regardless of their circumstances, and families learn to trust them to care for their children, and come to them for support when they need it.
“I think there is sometimes this perception that if someone is poor, they are bad, and that’s just not true. These are our families and we will always advocate and do what we can to help everyone we serve. If we can make our kids feel good about themselves and feel like they are in a safe space with people who care about them, we know their reading scores will get better and they will have more opportunities in life,” said McGorry.