On a bright Monday morning last month, young children entered the small house situated on the campus of Pace Law School in White Plains to read, write and learn together.
The Center for Literacy Enrichment, part of Pace University’s School of Education, has helped thousands of children develop their skills over its 40-year history. During that whole time, Sister St. John Delany, R.D.C., its founder and director, has been right at the center of the program.
The summer program currently serves 55 children from prekindergarten through eighth grade. Sister St. John told CNY that the program assists “children who have problems with reading and writing, and children who are not challenged in school.”
“Good readers and poor readers, our job is to challenge them,” she said simply.
“Every child should love to read,” Sister St. John said. That is the main goal of the center, she said.
To reach the goal, teachers focus on improving reading and literacy skills to build confidence. “You have to feel good about yourself. You have to have some confidence in yourself, and then with encouragement from the adults, you will make progress,” said Sister St. John, who is now 89.
Her own love of reading began at a young age. Accompanied by her sister, Joan, she would walk to the library each weekend and return home with books that opened up a whole new world to her.
Sister St. John, a Sister of the Divine Compassion, taught at St. Bernard’s School in White Plains and served as principal of St. Anthony of Padua in West Harrison before founding the center. She holds a doctorate in language and literacy from Fordham University.
She is an associate professor in Pace University’s School of Education, where she taught many of the center’s teachers.
The program has eight certified teachers and seven certified teaching assistants on its staff. Each room has two teachers, with some eight children in each classroom to ensure each student receives personal attention. Older students are tutored in classrooms in Our Lady of Good Counsel Elementary School. Classes are also offered throughout the school year.
Leslie Comegys, a former volunteer at the center, is now serving as a teacher for second- and third-graders. When CNY visited, the students in her classroom were reading Judy Blume’s “Freckle Juice.”
Ms. Comegys, a former student of Sister St. John’s, called the nun “a role model.”
“She’s been so inspirational and has such a passion for this,” she said.
Another teacher, Marie Carlin, who was leading students who will be going into sixth grade in September, said that the program aims to make reading fun so that it is “not something they are forced to do.”
Latoya Outlaw is one of the teaching assistants at the center. She has served in that position since February. “This program focuses on literacy and helping children strive to become better readers,” she told CNY. “Reading is a gateway to so many things, and the skills will help the students as adults.”
The students at the center agreed that the program is working. James Gallagher, who is in Ms. Carlin’s class, said, “I love it. It’s like school, but more fun.” In very precise details, he described the characters and plot of the class’s current book, “Number the Stars.”
Another student, Gabriele Richards, said the classes help her focus on what she is reading. “You might focus on dialogue, or skim for information,” she said.
In the afternoons, children participate in activities including arts and crafts, theater and even Italian lessons. Melissa Mastromonaco, a certified teaching assistant who also teaches Italian, said, “The kids really enjoy being in the classroom.”
Younger students also have the chance to build their literacy skills through computer classes. Andrew Newmark, the director of the Fast Forward Implementation Program, which utilizes literacy-based computer software, works with pre-readers and beginning readers.
“The games help develop memory skills, attention skills, processing and sequencing. Each of those skills is essential to become a better reader, writer, listener and speaker.”
Of her life’s work teaching literacy skills, Sister St. John said, “It’s the most wonderful work anybody could do. It’s so satisfying to work with the students and see them accomplish something.”