El Valor's Saturday literacy program enriches kids — and their parentsFeatured on Chicago Tribune
It’s a Saturday morning but without the sugary cereals or morning cartoons.
At this weekend academy for little ones, it’s about working on science and literacy in a classroom. And believe it or not, the kids in kindergarten through third grade are giggling, shouting to their friends and, by all accounts, excited to work alongside their parents, even on a Saturday.
“If I don’t come with my mom, I would work so lonely,” said Zuleyca Celis, wearing a purple sweater with Star Wars characters on it.
The 8-year-old girl said she and her mother come to El Valor Corp.’s Saturday Literacy and Science Academy in Little Village every week. The community organization also runs children and family centers in Pilsen and South Chicago.
“I’m a single mother, and I want her to be around other children,” said Zuleyca’s mom, Sulem Celis.
El Valor is one of the many local nonprofits that receive financial support through Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund.
Its main priority is early childhood education for underserved communities. Its programs reach about 4,000 families, 87 percent of them low-income Latinos, said Clara Lopez, who oversees the family programming. Aside from its signature preschools for children from birth to 5 years old, the group also serves parents and people with disabilities.
The free Saturday enrichment program was created a few years ago because families who transition from El Valor’s preschools into Chicago Public Schools wanted more support.
“Many of our kids start at birth and go all the way to 5 (years old) with us,” said Rey Gonzalez, president and chief executive of El Valor.
Above all, the program aims to teach kids how to learn and how to love learning. Knowing those habits start and end at home, the Saturday academy also teaches — and instills in — parents the true prize of education.
“In our (Latino) community, it’s about hard work. You get a job. You support your family,” Gonzalez said. “We’re trying to create a culture for embracing education and loving education. And who benefits from that but society?”
For a few hours on Saturday mornings, about 80 kids head off to the El Valor centers in Little Village and South Chicago. There is a class for kindergartners and another class for kids in first through third grade.
The kids come with their families — often parents, sometimes siblings. Occasionally, parent workshops coincide with the students’ lesson, focusing on nutrition or ways fathers can be more active in their children’s lives.
But it’s not a drop-off baby-sitting service. The attendance rate is about 90 percent every week, officials said, and parents are pressed to stay at least 30 minutes, particularly for the reading assignments.
“I think if you set up something that’s comfortable for them, they’re going to come. I think we all look for that,” Lopez said.
Fredy Quiroz and Rosalba Landero said they come every week with their 6-year-old son, David. Quiroz said being a part of the academy has been a privilege and that he eagerly switches his shifts at a printing shop just to make it.
“He learns. We see his happiness,” Quiroz said of his son, who talks constantly about the class work at home too.
In the sessions, kids learn science concepts with a hands-on project. Then, they write up and present their findings to their class for a bonus reinforcement in literacy.
It’s all play-based to make learning fun. Sometimes the lesson is about the life cycle of a monarch butterfly. Sometimes it’s about volcanoes or dinosaurs.
Tasked with building replicas of Chicago buildings with recycled materials, Zuleyca Celis and the other children who join her on Saturday learned about scale and engineering.
They started by studying printed-out pictures of the skyline. A number of Willis Towers spring up from painted over cardboard boxes stacked together. Not every child knows the building’s name or significance beyond the fact that it’s a skyscraper.
A miniature Cloud Gate sculpture emerges from stuffed paper, tape and tin foil, though its creator has never seen the real thing in person.
“I’ve seen it on TV,” said 6-year-old Jesus Gonzalez.
El Valor’s president said introducing this community’s children to the city’s renowned architecture in this exercise is just one small step toward equality.
“We don’t want our kids to be second-class citizens,” Rey Gonzalez said. “What we’re doing is trying to bring the world to our community.”
He added: “They should want to be engineers and doctors and lawyers and astronauts too.”