Inaugural Loonies for Literacy to enhance reading skills for students

Blackfoot language on MRU library signs will be easier to translate thanks to a student-designed app that uses augmented reality. SCREENSHOT

Up until the end of May, Education Matters is raising donations dollar by dollar to support literacy programs in Calgary’s public schools.

The Loonies for Literacy goal is to raise $100,000 that can be used like a matching grant for literacy programs and resources.

Parents and community members donating to support literacy in their local school would then have dollar for dollar that donation matched for an underserved school in need.

“The schools that are raising money are actually helping peers outside their school as well,” said Marilyn Field, executive director of Education Matters.

Education Matters is hoping to turn the fundraiser into an annual giving event to continually provide resources to Calgary Board of Education schools.

“We will always need new books and replaced books, and even electronic resources so that kids can learn literacy in the ways that they need to and with updated resources,” she said.

Helping local schools, and schools in need

The idea for the Loonies for Literacy fundraiser came about as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This all came about because Education Matters raises funds to help improve education for students in schools, to provide educational enhancements for things beyond what the government supports. And one of the things that we have noticed, especially through the pandemic is that there have been gaps in learning for kids,” said Field.

So far 67 schools have signed on to the fundraiser, and Field said she hopes that by the end of May there will be 100 involved.

Schools and school communities identify what their own specific literacy needs are, and then fundraise based on those needs. Education Matters is connecting those dollars with other fundraising sources like community partners and a large donation by title sponsor Mobility Quotient.

“The funds that the schools raise, this money will match that, but it will be given to a school in need—maybe a school that doesn’t have a parent council or fundraising resources, or doesn’t get the same amount, but they have a huge need—So kind of levels that playing field,” said Field.

Calgarians can make donations directly through educationmatters.ca. Or by texting literacy to 30333 to make a $5 donation. Community members wanting to donate directly to a local school can also do so through the website, or by adding a school short code to the end of the text.

Going beyond the basics

Jennifer George, principal of Douglas Harkness Elementary School, said that her school would be using donated dollars to supplement their print materials with “literacy manipulatives.”

“So things like literacy floor decals—like giant alphabet decals for the hallway—or literacy tiles, sort of like Scrabble tiles that the kids can manipulate that have letters on them, and literacy dice,” she said.

The school also wants to provide replacement books for their school library.

“We have a number of families who have a number of kids who do not come from print-rich environments at home. We do go through a lot of library books that will get signed out and not returned,” she said.

She said that while some schools try and chase down students to get those books back, there was an understanding at the school that these may be the only books that are in a home for kids. They plan on using the grant to supplement their in-school little free library with brand new materials.

“This is a bookshelf that right now is stocked with donated books, but we like to supplement that with new books when we can—so that those books are clean. They’re fresh, they’re new, and it’s a little bit like going to Chapters except it’s free.”

Brad Emery, who is the principal of the newly opened Sibylla Kiddle school, said that they would be using the fundraising dollars to fill out their school library with more than the basics.

“We have a nice base amount, a foundational amount, but really we have a growing and developing library,” he said.

“Our students absolutely love stories. They love to learn from stories, and to be read stories, and be told stories, and to make up stories as they look through a picture book. So a lot of our focus is going to be using this money to augment our picture book collection and have students learn through that power of storytelling as well.”

Literacy is fundamental for students …

Literacy, said Emery, is foundational to all of education.

“You know, it’s funny that the first thing that comes to mind is how important is water to a swimmer?”

He said that books help students to develop their vocabulary, critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and to develop empathy as well.

Emery told a story about reading a book called Who Wet My Pants to a kindergarten class. In addition to being hilarious and fun for that age group, also had real educational outcomes for foundational skill building.

“It’s all about this bear who accidentally wet his pants, but he blamed everyone else. And to allow students that chance to empathize with the main character, to empathize with emotions, really allows us to hear and understand each other,” he said.

George said that the picture books allowed her students, who often speak English as a third or fourth language, to connect with other students and their teachers.

“It doesn’t matter what language you speak, or what country you’ve come from these stories connect us and allow the kids a common place to enter into conversation,” she said.

Alberta has been a recognized leader amongst Canadian provinces, and internationally for its high level of literacy among students.

The Program for International Student Assessment’s last results from 2018 measured Alberta’s students as having the highest overall reading achievement scores in the nation. Only Singapore and the Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang region of China performed better than Alberta in literacy.

Approximately 88 per cent of Alberta’s students achieved a baseline level or above of reaching proficiency for their age. This was two per cent higher than the national average, three per cent higher than B.C., and five per cent higher than Saskatchewan.

The province has proposed a new curriculum that the government said would better improve educational outcomes for students. Alberta’s Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange claimed in 2021 that provincial standards of literacy were declining in Alberta compared to the rest of the world.

Data from the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has shown that PISA literacy results have been flat for Alberta, and for Canada, remaining near the top of all developed nations throughout the 2000s.

… and for the province’s future

Loonies for Literacy title sponsor Mobility Quotient considers literacy so fundamentally important that they have funded 25 per cent of the program’s goal with a $25,000 donation.

“It struck a chord with me to hear that there are kids in our education system that don’t have access to different kinds of learning materials,” said Nikhil Sonpal, CEO of Mobility Quotient.

He said that he and his wife read books to their children every day, asking them what their favourite parts were and using literacy to help them become comfortable with their emotions.

“Nine out of 10 times they say the favourite part of their day was to sit down and read the books with them, and to hear that that may be an opportunity that is lost to many kids in the education system was really something that I wanted to be able to do my part in helping help alleviate,” he said.

He said that as a Calgary-based tech employer, and as someone who has been in the software industry for 22 years, continuing to ensure that students have good literacy skills translates eventually into providing the kind of staff he needs to operate his business.

“It’s important, it’s paramount, it’s fundamental for us to make sure that there is a higher level of literacy and comprehension within the population base,” he said.

“I think as society, we need to understand that we’re now going to compete against a global competition set, and it’s no longer resource bound. The resource is the intellectual side, and the intellectual side has to be able to adapt.”

He pointed to market trend changes in the oil and gas industry, the rise of crypto currencies, and even Apple’s latest news about discontinuing the iPod as examples of how global technology trends affect the tech industry in Calgary.

“40 per cent of future jobs for our kids don’t even exist right now, and so the education system needs to be able to handle that. And I think the best way to be able to do that is to teach kids how to learn, and the way you learn is to read, to comprehend, and to elevate those literacy skills.”

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