Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.
COLUMBIA — It’s “Mr. Vincent’s” turn to read to Miss Jackie’s kids.
NORA STEWART EARLY LEARNING CENTER
The Nora Stewart Early Learning Center is a nonprofit organization funded primarily by the United Way of Columbia and partly by other local organizations.
The center accepts all children regardless of their household income. Using a sliding fee scale, which bases the cost of tuition on the parents' income, Nora Stewart has maintained affordable tuition rates for struggling families.
The center, however, needs additional funding because of rising operating costs and is seeking financial support from donors.
Here's how you can help:
Send donations to:
Nora Stewart Early Learning Center, 505 E. Ash St., Columbia, MO 65203
For any questions, contact director Cheryl Howard at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 449-5981.
It is estimated that $5 billion a year in taxes goes to support people receiving public assistance who are unemployable due to illiteracy. (Laubach Literacy Action)
At least 43 percent of adults with low literacy skills live in poverty. (Trident Literacy Association)
“Miss Jackie” Ford, their teacher, rounds them up. Quietly and obediently, the children juxtapose themselves on the floor in an "L" formation, sitting cross-legged.
Vincent St. Omer shakes each of their hands as he introduces himself, and the children return the favor.
Many of Ford’s students and the other children at Nora Stewart Early Learning Center are members of ethnic minorities. Many come from low-income households; some of their parents juggle multiple jobs.
Likewise, St. Omer was born to a single mother with an elementary education who sold baked goods and soft drinks to support her two sons. His family was among many other low-income families in St. Lucia, a 238-square-mile island in the West Indies, where education was a privilege, not an opportunity.
Mentors who included a Nobel Prize winner in literature guided St. Omer to success.
To help him finance his first year of college, his mother sacrificed her home, and he saved his wages from working at a mink ranch at Ontario Veterinary College in Canada, which he attended.
Despite his family’s circumstances, St. Omer went on to become a doctor of veterinary medicine, an educator and a school administrator.
These days, he's an inspiration to Columbia’s younger generation. In 1979, he joined the Minority Men’s Network, a group of predominantly black professionals who serve as role models and award scholarships to minority students.
In 2010, he spearheaded a reading program at Nora Stewart, a nonprofit early learning center that dates to 1933. The center, initially a nursery for black children, accepts children from all backgrounds.
Once a week, a member from the Minority Men's Network or the Columbia Kiwanis Club reads an age-appropriate book to the children at Nora Stewart. The reading program focuses on, but isn’t limited to, underprivileged ethnic minorities between the ages of 2 and 10.
“They love it when these guys come in and read stories to them and just to be involved,” said Ford, who has taught at Nora Stewart for five years.
Every year, the Rotary Club of Columbia to which St. Omer belongs, donates dictionaries to Columbia Public Schools. The club's focus on reducing illiteracy is more global than local, and he said he once thought, "We do have a problem right here in Columbia."
Researchers have long reported on the correlation between poverty and illiteracy.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 23 percent of Columbia residents lived below the poverty line between 2006 and 2010. In its most recent report, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 6 percent of all adults in Boone County were unable to read and understand any written information or only able to recognize easily identifiable text.
"Early childhood intervention is key," said St. Omer, whose research interests include developmental neurobehavioral pharmacology. “The greatest development of the brain is from birth to three years.”
Children who aren’t prepared early can find it difficult to catch up when they enter kindergarten, he said. “If a child cannot read or write age-appropriately by third grade, that child will likely drop out of high school and become an illiterate adult.”
Nora Stewart director Cheryl Howard said the center tries to go a bit further than the guidelines set by Columbia Public Schools for kindergarten.
"Most of my children, when they leave Nora Stewart, can at least count to 50," she said. "They know how to write their names. They know phone numbers."
The reading program and adult interaction, Howard said, are “enriching the lives of the children as far as the educational process is concerned.”
Parental involvement and a stimulating environment are crucial factors in the successful development of a child, St. Omer said. “Even if the parents aren’t very literate, they can still provide an enriched environment."
He noted that parents who lack literacy skills can help their children comprehend books with illustrations. Pictures help tell stories, and a child can easily understand a story if parents ask questions about the images.
Nora Stewart encourages the children to continue reading beyond the classroom, but many of them don’t have books at home.
To help them, Nora Stewart provides age-appropriate books donated by the Minority Men’s Network and others in the community that the kids can take home for themselves and other children in their household. On holidays, some children receive the books as gifts.
Five-year-old Keyana said she enjoys reading by herself at home and being read to by her parents at bedtime. Her favorite stories are about dogs and butterflies.
“There are lots of misconceptions we have that if a child is in an impoverished environment, grows up with a single parent, that child is doomed,” St. Omer said. “That child may have obstacles, but that child can succeed.”