Local kids, with help from Oski, celebrate their BUILDing literacy skills

A din filled a large hall at the Bancroft Way YWCA Monday afternoon, as more than 150 young Berkeley Unified School District students met Biscuit the Dog and the campus mascot, Oski — and accepted certificates for improving their reading skills with the help of UC Berkeley student mentors. Hugs, high fives and photo ops with those special animal guests were in order, as was coloring giant sheets of paper filled with children’s book characters. Chancellor Birgeneau and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates were among those on hand to congratulate all involved.

Young students with their BUILD reading awards

Emerson Elementary students show off their BUILD reading awards.

Through the Berkeley United in Literacy Development (BUILD) program, hundreds of UC Berkeley students are trained to provide individualized support to struggling readers in Berkeley and Oakland, helping them improve foundational reading skills needed to succeed in school. Most are paid with work-study funds; others receive units or volunteer their time.

The kids were excited and “in awe with the University of California Seal on their certificate,” said UC Berkeley mentor Daisy Zuniga, on hand at the celebration. “They kept asking what that meant. I told them that the University saw all of their hard work and wanted to recognize them as super-star students and readers.

“A lot of my tutees had never been on campus, even though they live and go to school in Berkeley,” Zuniga added. “I told them … that one day that certificate can be joined by a degree from the University of California.”

Recent research has demonstrated the importance of reading on grade level by the end of third grade, says Carrie Donovan, manager of K-12 programs at Cal Corps Public Service Center, a key partner in the thriving town-gown collaboration. “Children who don’t are four times more likely to drop out of high school.”

The City of Berkely has one of California’s widest K-12 racial achievement gaps. Among its public elementary students, only 25 percent of the African Americans and 30 percent of Latinos tested proficient in language arts in 2007, compared to 84 percent of white students, Donovan notes. To address this challenge, a team of Berkeley Unified principals and staff, literacy specialists and City youth staff asked the campus to help meet aggressive reading-proficiency goals set in the city’s “2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth.”

“They identified elementary reading as a key area where Cal students could have the greatest impact,” says Donovan.

The BUILD program has recently expanded, with the infusion of financial support from a number of sources, including the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, the Irene S. Scully Foundation and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Funds were raised to provide literacy mentors for each of Berkeley’s 11 public elementary schools. BUILD tutors mentor more than 1,000 young readers at 22 locations, including grade schools in Oakland and community and summer programs in Berkeley.

The BUILD event was followed by Cal Corps’ end-of-year celebration, which continued into the evening.

Young readers with BUILD mentor Daisy Zuniga

Oski helps BUILD mentees color some of their favorite reading-book characters.