Education Students Serve as Early Literacy Ambassadors

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Students from Dominican University of California’s Department of Education are working as “early literacy ambassadors” in three elementary schools this semester as part of a two-year program developed by Dominican and Parent Services Project (PSP), a San Rafael nonprofit that integrates family support into early childhood programs and schools.

The program, which is funded by a grant from the Marin Community Foundation Parent Learning Opportunity Fund, was inspired by a similar program Dominican’s Department of Education faculty were involved in the previous year.  That Promotora project was facilitated by Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity (BranchED), a government program that serves a national network of educator preparation programs at Minority Serving Institutions (MSI). In 2022, Dominican was designated as an MSI, specifically a Hispanic Serving Institution and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution.

“BranchED contacted us because of our MSI designation and invited us to join their Promotora project, a family engagement project focused on the early literacy development of Spanish speaking children,” says Katie Lewis, associate professor of education.

“We needed a community partner to join the project, so we identified PSP as a perfect partner in early literacy support because they were already doing similar work.”

PSP primarily serves low-income Spanish-speaking Latino families living in San Rafael, Novato, Marin City, and West Marin.

Last spring, BranchED, Dominican, and PSP developed a dialogic reading strategies workshop, attended by six bilingual teacher candidates in Dominican’s undergraduate, graduate, and teacher credential programs and 10 families. The teacher candidates learned strategies to encourage and enhance dialogue between adult and child about the text they were reading aloud together. The strategies are based on PSP’s “Raising a Reader” program designed to engage low-income families in a shared reading program that increases children’s access and exposure to books.

“The workshops focused on how the Dominican students can support early literacy in households, how best to communicate with parents, and how to model early literacy strategies,” says Lewis.

“The teacher candidates already know literacy theory,” Lewis adds. “PSP helped them use jargon-free language that would help the families see themselves in a teaching role and view literacy development as accessible.”

The six Dominican teacher candidates are currently working in three schools – Coleman Elementary in San Rafael, Lynwood in Novato, and Grant Elementary in Richmond.  As part of their work as early literacy ambassadors, the teacher candidates will plan and co-facilitate/co-teach one early literacy workshop for a group of 20-30 families at their fieldwork site in April. A PSP representative and at least one faculty consultant from Dominican will attend and support candidates.

“As early literacy ambassadors, the Dominican teacher candidates will provide interactive family engagement and learning in classroom settings,” says Lewis. “When they complete their preparation programs at Dominican and are teaching full time in elementary classrooms, they will continue to provide these family engagement and early literacy support services with their students and families.”

For Jessica Ramirez, a graduate student who will finish her Master’s in Education degree this summer, the work as an early literacy ambassador has been both rewarding and transformative.

“The program has equipped me with a robust toolkit of resources, thoroughly designed to empower both students and their families on their educational journey,” she says. “This opportunity has not only honed my leadership abilities within the realm of education but has also fostered the development of innovative teaching techniques.”

Ramirez, who graduated from Dominican last year with her BA in Education Studies, notes that the heart of her commitment lies in a deep-seated desire to serve those who are most in need. 

“It is my aspiration to extend the same level of impactful support that my own family once received, ensuring that every family, regardless of background or circumstance, has access to the resources necessary to foster literacy and learning,” Ramirez says.

Ramirez will co-lead the early literacy family workshops at Grant Elementary in Richmond, where the current principal also graduated from Dominican.

“Essentially, my involvement in the Early Literacy Ambassadors program goes beyond professional development; it represents a heartfelt dedication to making a real difference in the lives of those we serve.”

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