April 13, 2012 > 'Reading Restaurant' feeds books to kids, parents
'Reading Restaurant' feeds books to kids, parents
By Francisco Vara-Orta, San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO (AP), Mar 24 - On a recent evening, Pecan Valley Elementary School Principal Merrill Ramsey, dressed in a formal white shirt and black bow tie, greeted students and their parents near the entrance to the school cafeteria to escort them into the ``restaurant.''
About 20 teachers dressed as waiters bustled around tables covered in white cloths, taking orders from about 50 students in pre-K through third grade and their families.
The main course wasn't edible, though it was food for thought. On the menu were books, just books, all available for ``takeout.''
At the ``Reading Restaurant,'' students and their families decide what to order, and a teacher comes over to read their selection with those at the table. Later they take books home.
While it mimics a fancy dining room and bookstore - both in short supply near Pecan Valley - the restaurant is an unconventional approach to literacy.
``I think elementary school is a critical time where you can help kids learn to love books,'' said Lauri Peters, a dyslexia specialist at the school for 24 years. ``So doing `Reading Restaurant' helps put books in hands of a lot of families that don't possibly have books at home to share with their children.''
It also reinforces the message that parents need to read to and with their children, making it a priority in the home.
``I think allowing them to choose their book gets them motivated,'' Peters said. ``I get goose bumps because reading is my love and the goal is to make reading fun. And watching parents reading with their kids gives me a positive feeling of what we can do when we all get involved.''
Peters recently won a $1,000 grant from the Association of the Texas Professional Educators to fund the restaurant, now in its fifth year. The school in East Central Independent School District can't afford the once-a-year event, so Peters wins grants.
``It really is an example of teachers taking matters into their own hands,'' Ramsey said. ``More educators and administrators are going to have to seek out those additional funds if we were going to do programs like these.''
East Central has avoided massive layoffs, but Pecan Valley has lost funding for some staffing positions, such as an assistant vice principal and paraprofessionals. Three Pecan Valley teachers have won grants to supplement their programs this year, Ramsey said.
With this year's grant, Peters was able to buy about 300 books to give away. To save money for books, teachers have recycled their ``waiter'' costumes over the years.
Across the state, districts cut library services to cope with a $5.4 billion cut in state funding. Federally funded programs, such as Reading is Fundamental, which has provided money for free book giveaways at districts nationwide, have lost their funding and will end at many local high-need districts this year.
At the same time, local civic leaders are touting literacy. San Antonio has signed on to the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, competing with 150 cities developing communitywide literacy plans to improve third-grade reading achievement, when most research indicates students should know how to read well to ensure future academic success. Various programs have been launched to ramp up the local efforts, including reading centers at some H-E-B stores.
``Getting the parents just to come to the school is important because many parents might have had a bad experience in school and they don't feel comfortable in a school,'' Ramsey said. ``So this event shows we can have fun with them, they get to know staff better and seem more willing to work with us.''
The restaurant is only open one hour a year. At closing time, every child in the room strolled up to a table full of books - from Dr. Seuss' classics to ``Curious George'' - selected one and headed home to start spring break.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com