Waterloo-based organization helping students academic recovery from pandemic

By Taylor Pace

Prior to the pandemic, approximately one in four children struggled with learning to read in Canada. But COVID-19 has profoundly disrupted classroom learning, which leads to learning losses and impacts children’s academic achievements.  

This is why organizations like Strong Start are needed more now than ever before, according to Strong Start executive director Machelle Denison. 

“We're really looking forward to being part of the recovery from COVID-19,” Denison said. 

The vision of Strong Start was inspired by the late Lyle S. Hallman, who strongly believed that children learning to read at a young age was essential for both their academic success and the success of their community as a whole. Hallman also believed it crucial that community members volunteer to help their children. 

Hallman was introduced to former executive director, Lynda Silvester, who was just retiring from the Waterloo Region District School Board. 

“Together, they looked for a program where volunteers would help young children learn to read — but they couldn’t find one that met their criteria,” Denison said. “So Lynda, along with about six educators from the Waterloo Region District School Board, created what is now our Letters, Sounds and Words program.”

The Letters, Sounds and Words program is in just about every school in Waterloo Region.

Children are selected by their teacher, and then paired with trained community volunteers who come in to work one-on-one with them. This gives them a “boost” before they get discouraged, Denison says. 

The program is directed at children in Grades 1 and 2. This is because, according to Denison, it’s critical that children learn to read successfully by the end of Grade 3.

“By Grade 3, children are reading to learn. Up until then, they're learning to read. But really, if a child is not reading by the end of Grade 3, they really are susceptible to failure and never catching up,” she said. 

In fact, she says that around 74 per cent of children who leave Grade 3 struggling with reading will continue to struggle. 

“So catching them early in their development when the greatest impact is possible is really key to improving their learning trajectory,” she said, which is why their programs are targeted primarily for children in senior kindergarten and grades one and two. 

They also have a program for babies ages 6 to 12 months, and one for children ages 3 to 4, all of which are free. 

“The Baby Connections program is for families with babies six to 12 months of age. It’s delivered through partnerships with agencies, libraries, and community centres.”

Strong Start trains a staff member at each partner location, and then provides a bag of educational resources for parents. 

“So they get a bag with books, a sensory toy, free music download for an album,” she said. “But they also receive free coaching as to what’s happening in their baby’s brain development and how their one-to-one interactions with their babies helps to promote those neural connections which lay the pathways to language and literacy.”

Their Get Ready for School program is primarily for children ages 3 to 4 from low income backgrounds and children who are learning English as a second language.

“Those children are often not as ready for school as, perhaps, children from higher socio-economic backgrounds, who have had experience in programs and other things,” she said. 

The program is intended to help prepare them for kindergarten, and is held in 20 locations across Waterloo Region, as well as one new location in Owen Sound. In it, children learn the sounds letters make and develop their vocabulary, “which is necessary for reading and learning success, as well as just classroom readiness behaviours.” 

In a normal year, around 400 children are enrolled in this program, and about 600 in Baby Connections. Their largest program is the Letters, Sounds and Words program, which typically helps around 4,000 children every year. 

But that number is set to grow dramatically, as Strong Start was recently awarded a million dollar grant from the 2021 TD Ready Challenge. With it, Denison says they will be expanding their school-based program over a three year period to more schools outside of the region, helping an additional 9,000 children. 

“The goal is 300 new schools over three years,” she said. “We’re currently working with nine school boards in seven regions in Ontario, and have seven independent schools that are running the program as well.”

The organization has already seen tremendous growth. In 2010, the Letters, Sounds and Words program was in about 130 schools between Waterloo Region and surrounding areas. That number has since more than doubled: today, they are in 350 locations in seven regions, and have helped nearly 50,000 children with early literacy. 

“I think that Strong Start is a great example of the community rallying around its children, to help them learn to read. It's an essential life skill, you know, it impacts learning, it impacts high school graduation rates, it impacts employment, civic engagement, health and wellness, mental health, poverty reduction, crime reduction,” she said. “It’s an important skill that children and adults carry with them through their whole life.” 

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