OWL Talks

Working with Our Community: Holyoke Early Literacy Initiative

Posted by Jillian Dicken on Dec 27, 2016 2:00:00 PM

My “Writing That Matters” group collaborated with the Holyoke Early Literacy Initiative, or HELI, an organization that works with family, community members, the school system, and activists to improve Holyoke’s early literacy for children from birth to third grade. HELI’s work is important because the city of Holyoke has noticeably low literacy rates. In 2013, 13% of Holyoke’s third grade students scored proficient or advanced on the MCAS, compared to a 57% state average.

HELI believes that family is important when it comes to early literacy because children spend the majority of their non-school time at home. Many children are first exposed to language by their parents or guardians, and children’s literacy continues to be influenced by their parents as they get older. According to research, miscommunication between parents and school systems is a significant cause of low literacy rates. According to the 2015 census, around 48% of Holyoke identifies as Hispanic or Latino. HELI recognizes that home languages should be valued and preserved in order to help cross-cultural communication.

Students in Professor Savini’s class were tasked to create a memo and an annotated bibliography for HELI of current research on the topic of family outreach. This research will serve HELI when they apply for grants. A significant area of investigation involved how organizations can better interact with English as a second language, or ESL, parents.

Jose Gonzalez.jpgOur liaison for this project was Holyoke native Jose Gonzalez, a 2015 Westfield State graduate who coordinates a HELI Parent Café.

When asked about the importance of HELI’s work, Gonzales responded, “The future of Holyoke is in the hands of Holyoke’s children. There is no way Holyoke will prosper if kids don’t have the skills necessary to navigate in this society and become community leaders. One of HELI’s goals is to build a community of parent leaders who will tackle Holyoke’s literacy crisis. A lot of Holyoke kids become alienated from learning at a young age, and they lose their love for learning. Therefore, children never gain the necessary skills to become self-determined, self-reliant, and self-sufficient as adults.” HELI hopes that, through parent outreach and empowerment, they can help the children of Holyoke establish good learning habits.

Working with HELI has shown us the value of pairing English composition with a community organization. One student who had the opportunity to work with HELI said, “This was the first time that I had done a research project that was going to be read by someone other than my professor. I think that having HELI as the audience for the memo challenged my writing and made me work harder. It felt good that the memo and research were going to benefit the children of Holyoke and hopefully increase their literacy.”


Jillian is a Political Science and Economics dual major from Belchertown, MA.

Reprinted from the Squirrel Squire, the newsletter of the Honors Program

Topics: Working with Our Community, civic engagement

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