Kristi Yamaguchi’s program uniquely positioned to supplement COVID-era education

THOUSANDS OF BOOKS ­— Skye-Anyaliah Omai participates in the Always Reading Program. Her mother said she has taken to reading her favorite books herself since receiving her tablet from Kristi Yamaguchi’s foundation. photo by Lina Omai

Kristi Yamaguchi’s Always Dream Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Founded by the renown figure skating gold medalist and “Dancing with the Stars” champion, the organization helps underserved kindergartners develop good reading habits through their Always Reading Program. The program has been particularly busy during the pandemic, as many kids have had to attend school remotely.

Yamaguchi told the Nichi Bei Weekly that, while her organization spent its first 15 years focused on helping underserved children in general, the emphasis in reading came after Yamaguchi published “Dream Big Little Pig” in 2012.

“Early literacy has always … been a passion of my husband and I with our two young daughters,” she said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We, the whole organization and the board, decided to really focus in on early literacy shortly after” Yamaguchi became a children’s book author.

Upon learning that 25 percent of children in the United States graduate from school reading at below grade level, Yamaguchi thought her organization could improve those statistics by starting with getting young children to read in local schools. The organization serves kindergartners at 26 schools in California, Arizona and Hawai‘i, according to its Website. While the Bay Area native started locally, Yamaguchi said she eventually looked to Nevada and Hawai‘i based on her connections.

“We didn’t have to go overseas or anywhere dramatic in order to make a big difference. So we started here in the Bay Area and things were just growing and we wanted to have a bigger footprint and decided to go outside of California,” she said. “And my co-founder

Dean Osaki had previous relationships with the school district and principals in Arizona. So he felt that, … if we were going to go outside of California, we would need those kinds of connections.”

Yamaguchi said she branched out to Hawai‘i because the state was “a second home” for her family. Currently, the program serves eight schools on O‘ahu, but Yamaguchi said she hopes to eventually expand to the other islands as well.

“We knew we needed to have a network of people who … could help us establish ourselves there and to really be introduced into the community. Because of our close relationships and family and friends in Hawai‘i, … we knew — coupled with the needs that we saw there — we can make a big impact.”

“When a child has access to high quality books, and has that support of their family and family engagement at home, their trajectory for success becomes much higher,” Yamaguchi said. “I mean, 60 percent of low-income families have no books in the home. So, if that being the case, how is a child going to learn how to love books and to learn about dreams and adventures and things like that and develop that love of reading?”

Handing out tablets alone, however, is not enough to give children access to books. Yamaguchi realized the digital divide was a major concern, even in California.

“It’s a big challenge, and I think that this pandemic highlighted just how big the digital divide truly is here in our country. Being from the Bay Area, in the backyard of Silicon Valley, it just puts me off,” Yamaguchi said. “We have so many kids and families who are challenged with that. … I mean when we started our program, I would say about 30 to 35 percent of our families did not have Wi-Fi access at home. So we provided those families with data-enabled tablets, so that their child could access the digital library.”

While the pandemic forced schools to close and sent kids home, Yamaguchi said her program’s focus on handing out tablets to students since 2012 had prepped her program to function despite the shelter-in-place orders. Save for moving the in-person meetings with participating families online, Yamaguchi said the program has continued to run as designed under COVID.

Yamaguchi said one of the biggest elements of the Always Reading Program, aside from giving kindergartners access to thousands of books, is coaching parents to encourage their children to read and learn new vocabulary.

“I think the second larger prong is really the family engagement piece,” Yamaguchi said. “When the families get involved and the kids hear the words and they start learning vocabulary … the concept of reading and ideas start to form.”

Lina Omai said her daughter’s participation in the Always Reading Program has been a wonderful and rewarding experience. Skye-Anyaliah Omai is a kindergartner at the Malama Honua Charter School in Waimanolo, Hawai‘i.

“I’ve been reading to my daughter since she was a newborn in hopes that she would develop the love for reading as she got older,” Omai said. “And I tell you that the best feeling for me is to witness Skye-Anyaliah excel in her reading comprehension. And not only that, but also to observe her utilizing her expanding vocabulary through play as well.”

Skye-Anyaliah told the Nichi Bei Weekly she enjoys the wide variety of books she can read, as well as learning new words. She particularly enjoys “Cinderella Penguin” and other princess stories she finds on the Always Reading app.

Her mother said the app has encouraged her to take the initiative to read on her own while staying home during the pandemic. She added that the Spanish-language books that are available on the app are helpful for their multiethnic household.

“I’ll listen to her and it’s like shocking to me because sometimes she’ll use words that I’ve never heard her say before, and these are words that I know that she’s learned through the Always Reading Program, through the books that she’s read,” Omai said.

Yamaguchi said her program emphasizes the active role parents should take in encouraging their children to start reading. The pandemic, she said, makes their role as secondary teachers even more vital. Yamaguchi hopes her program will help parents play the role of a teacher when kindergartners are unable to learn in a classroom.

“We are trying more than ever to give the parents in our programs the tools to be that third teacher, second teacher at home for their child,” she said. “You know, prompting them to ask them certain questions and letting them know the importance of even just talking about the books and the characters and what might be happening in the story. All of those things to really keep those kids as engaged as possible, even if they’re not in the classroom like they normally would be.”

Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, Yamaguchi said the Always Dream Foundation is in an exciting phase of growth as remote learning becomes the new normal.

“The program is relevant as ever with what’s going on now, and will continue to be there even after the pandemic,” she said. “But we’re excited to (be) where we are, even through the challenges of this year, we’re continuing to expand and have aspirations of reaching more students out there.”

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