By Kathryn Coulibaly
Sometimes, it’s easy to trace the origin of a great idea.
In November 2019, Roosevelt Elementary School first-grade bilingual teacher Anne-Marie Riveaux McMahon saw a tweet from Chelsea Clinton about a laundromat literacy program in New York City. The program provided books and resources to children and parents while they did their laundry.
That one tweet inspired McMahon and her co-worker, Maritza Acevedo, a parent liaison at Roosevelt Elementary School, to develop New Brunswick’s Wash and Learn program.
Working closely with Roosevelt Elementary School Principal Gisela Ciancia, the two educators had long been working to encourage greater parental involvement and closer ties to the community.
“We love working with families,” McMahon said. “We would meet at the library after school and over the summer with the same four to six interested families. We started board game projects and incorporated strategies to help students with math, reading, and social emotional learning. Over time it grew, and we were inspired to move it into other areas of the community in the hope of attracting even more families.”
“When Mrs. McMahon approached me about creating this opportunity to enhance our students’ education by meeting their parents where they are, I immediately jumped on board,” Ciancia said. “This type of community program benefits all of its participants. Not only are parents and students delighted with the program, but the teachers and community participants are energized as well.”
Help from the community
The two educators connected with Capt. Michael Bobadilla of the New Brunswick Police Department who introduced them to Hector Martinez, operator of the Handy Street Laundromat.
Together, they developed a space at the laundromat where they could house a permanent book collection, including books and a bookshelf donated by the police department, as well as run monthly programs for children and families.
“We are so appreciative of the New Brunswick Police Department,” Acevedo said. “They donate books that children can take home to build their own libraries. And the Handy Street Laundromat is so generous to provide us with this space, along with other incentives to encourage families to participate.”
The hour-long program is held on Wednesdays and is advertised through the schools, police department, municipal website and at the laundromat. While structured, the program provides plenty of opportunities for children and families to interact with school staff.
The first 15 children to arrive get to choose a game, craft, or STEM activity to take home and do with their families. During the first 15-20 minutes of the workshop, teacher volunteers help students “shop” for books to take home at no cost. After that, teachers read with the children one-on-one. For the last 40 minutes of the workshop, McMahon or a guest reader leads a group reading aloud followed by an activity in art, music, history or science that relates to the story.
The New Brunswick Education Association provides $200 a month for anything they need. Acevedo and McMahon scour stores such as Five Below for games, puzzles, art supplies, science materials, and crafts.
“We use all these materials to run programs that help students build their skills with literacy, math, collaboration and reading comprehension,” McMahon said.
During the workshop, McMahon explains to parents how they can use games such as Guess Who? to develop critical thinking skills. McMahon also demonstrates how parents can use bingo to help their children learn numbers, practice place value, and increase their focus and listening skills.
There is time for shared reading, and the police department donates extra copies of the books that are provided for students.
A ‘book desert’
The literacy outreach is vital to the community. New Brunswick is considered to be a “book desert.” According to endbookdeserts.com, a book desert is “a geographic area where reading materials are difficult to obtain. The term was coined by Unite for Literacy to call attention to structural inequalities that compromise children’s reading development.”
“Once the pandemic hit, teachers were very concerned about the students’ reading,” McMahon said. “Having books available at the laundromat that they can take home with them is a great way to get books in their homes.”
Throughout the pandemic, volunteers from all around the community continued to refill the bookshelves and children were encouraged to take as many books as they would like.
“It’s so wonderful to walk into the laundromat and see kids reading,” Acevedo said.
Wash and Learn provides books for younger and older children, and when books for adults are donated, program volunteers encourage parents and older family members to take them.
“If kids see their parents and other role models in their families reading, then it becomes a family habit,” McMahon said.
Connecting with families
In addition to the literacy program, McMahon and Acevedo work with the police department to run programs on safety. They also recorded police officers reading children’s books and made the video available to students. The New Brunswick Police Department also works closely with the school safety patrol.
Other guest readers have included Claudio Mir, a muralist and senior program coordinator at Rutgers University Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service.
Periodically, Acevedo runs technology workshops for parents. She shows them the apps and websites for the schools and helps them navigate various technology platforms so they can better communicate with the schools.
“We’ve had high school volunteers go over different technologies with parents,” Acevedo said. “They help them with their phones and show them how to access Google Meet and Google Classroom.”
“We thought people were too busy or not interested, but a lot of parents just weren’t sure how to connect or what to do,” McMahon said. “Connecting with the community has really changed our perception of what the barriers are for parents. Assisting them to navigate the technology has made a huge difference.”
More than 50 parents and children participate in the program monthly, and McMahon and Acevedo are enthusiastic about continuing to grow the program.
“We’re having fun,” Acevedo said. “We love planning it and being there. We feel so good doing something so positive for the community.”
The program benefits parents and families in other ways, as well. Wash and Learn and the Handy Street Laundromat provide detergent and laundry cards to parents who participate. The programs are bilingual, with books available in English and Spanish to better serve families.
Community partners and supporters
McMahon and Acevedo are appreciative of their many community partners and supporters, including the Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, which donated “tons of books” and a computer. The Arts Institute of Middlesex County has become a major supporter, as well. During the 2022-23 school year, the institute has committed to providing the families who participate in the Wash and Learn program with excursions to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), East Jersey Old Town Village, and other places in the community. These excursions will not only give families memorable experiences, but also help students build background knowledge, a key factor in improving reading comprehension.
In addition to books and games, Acevedo accepts donations of scooters, bikes, karaoke machines, and computers that are raffled off prizes to parents and kids. This generates excitement and participation. But the most important element is being there with the children and families and spreading the word about reading.
“By talking and reading with our children, we help them learn, share ideas, become critical thinkers, and create lifelong memories that strengthen our bonds with each other,” McMahon said.
Too Small to Fail
As the Too Small to Fail project has demonstrated, laundromats are a prime space for literacy programs. Too Small to Fail is a Clinton Foundation initiative that partnered with the LaundryCares Foundation to create the Laundry Literacy Coalition, the program that was the subject of Chelsea Clinton’s tweet.
According to Brian Wallace, president and CEO of a Chicago area coin laundry association, on average, families who use laundromats spend about two and a half hours there every week. They’re also a space uniquely suited to literacy activities. Studies of the six New York area laundromat literacy programs have shown that children who visit them spend an average of 47 minutes per visit on literacy activities. The children were so engaged with the literacy activities, they ignored the available televisions.
As educators know, research shows the importance of early brain development. According to research compiled by the National Library of Medicine, “neural and behavioral research studies show that exposure to language in the first year of life influences the brain’s neural circuitry even before infants speak their first words.” This early exposure impacts their language and prereading abilities in the second, third and fifth years of life.
Literacy programs like New Brunswick’s Wash and Learn have never been more important to children and families. The pandemic caused disruption in almost every area of life and the repercussions will be felt indefinitely. According to several outlets, that is certainly true when it comes to literacy. Several new studies have revealed startling results. Some estimate that one-third of children in early elementary grades are missing reading benchmarks. In Virginia, early reading skills were recorded at a 20-year low.
According to New York Times reporter Dana Goldstein in the article, “It’s Alarming: Children are Severely Behind in Reading,” published in March 2022, “Children in every demographic group have been affected, but Black and Hispanic children, as well as those from low-income families, those with disabilities and those who are not fluent in English, have fallen the furthest behind.”
According to Education Week, more than one in three children in kindergarten through third grade need intensive reading help and are unlikely to be reading at grade level by the end of the school year.
Programs such as Wash and Learn, and organizational initiatives such as The Laundry Literacy Coalition, are working hard to bring literacy programs into the community, where they can be the most effective and reach the widest audience.
“As the Too Small to Fail motto puts it, talking is teaching,” McMahon said. “Our goal is to provide resources for the community and learning opportunities for children and their families.”
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.