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Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar, Minn., offers reading, math tips to use with children at home

Spanish interpreter Denise Taverne reads to a group of students. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- When parents read with their children, it's a good idea to stop once in a while and talk about how the subject of the book relates to a child's other experiences.

It might have a connection to a child's own life, or to another book read recently, or to something going on elsewhere in the world. Using books about turtles, reading specialist Patty Hoaglund demonstrated the strategy during Family Literacy Night Thursday at Kennedy Elementary School.

More than 40 children and parents attended the meeting in the school's cafeteria to learn math and reading strategies they could use at home with their kids.

The meeting lasted a little longer than an hour. The next meeting, where more reading and math tips will be provided, is scheduled for Oct. 25.

The gatherings are part of the K-5 school's turnaround plan, which will be funded by a $500,000 School Improvement Grant this year.

Kennedy received the grant for this school year and will be eligible to apply again in the next two years. Kennedy has been listed among the lowest-performing schools in the state when it comes to student achievement and the achievement gap between different groups of students.

Engaging parents and the community in the school's efforts to reduce the achievement gap is a requirement of the federal grant.

In addition to the reading strategy, math specialist Tom Beyer demonstrated a website,, which provides different math exercises and games.

"Anything there is educational," even though they are games, he said.

The site offers a variety of games, not all needing a computer, he added. It includes apps for tablet computers and also has rules for games played with a deck of cards.

The families had arrived to find books about turtles and toy turtles scattered across several tables in the cafeteria. "I picked turtles because I know a lot about turtles," Hoaglund said. She went through a book and talked about the turtles who live in the woods and pond near her house.

"That's something I can make a connection to," Hoaglund said, and she suggested parents could use the strategy to help kids remember and understand what they read.

In the second part of the meeting, children went to another room to read with teachers while parents learned more about a daily half-hour block of time called Response to Intervention, dedicated to helping all students be successful in school.

Director of Teaching and Learning Cheryl Nash told the parents that the extra support would be tailored to the needs of children, whether they were struggling or excelling. "It's going to look different for different kids," she said.

Parents will receive monthly reports of how their children are doing.

Principal Todd Goggleye told the parents that the literacy nights are a pilot program, and they may be adjusted to meet the needs of the Kennedy community.

Goggleye said his door is always open to parents, and he wants to hear about it if they have concerns or questions.

Lisa Kimball of Willmar was there with her daughter, Lindsey Smith, 8. Kimball and third-grader Lindsey were already one of the turtle books before the meeting started.

"I thought it was wonderful," Kimball said afterward. She particularly liked the ideas about making connections while reading, she said. "It helps you get more involved."

Jennifer Mendoza of Willmar said she was glad to learn more about the grant the school received, too. "I thought it was really informative," she said, and she liked the ideas they got. "We'll go home and see what we can do with this at our home."

Goggleye said he was pleased with the turnout. He hadn't known how many people to expect, he said. "I'm happy with the families that are here; they want to see Kennedy succeed."

He hopes the families will help spread the word about the next family night, he said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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