Responding to crisis is in a firefighter’s DNA. Not every crisis is built the same.

There’s a critical need in Fort Worth – and around the country – in the space of early childhood literacy and preventing learning loss over the summer. Developing strategies and collecting data to create system change is an ongoing process that requires cross-sectional approach of community partners, school districts, government agencies and beyond.

And while those processes are well underway in Fort Worth, boots on the ground are just as important. At the Valley at Cobb Park apartments in the Morningside area of East Fort Worth, those boots happened to belong to the Fort Worth Fire Department.

Under the direction of Captain William T. Hackley from Community Risk Reduction department, the Fire Department launched a trail six-week program at Cobb Park, a low-income complex feeding primarily into Fort Worth ISD’s Edward J. Briscoe Elementary.

Cobb Park was part of the City of the Fort Worth’s larger 100X25 initiative, which included numerous summer programs that reached thousands of kids at community centers and other facilities, such as museums, across the city. 100X25 is also part of Read Fort Worth’s Summer Scholars Collaborative, a series of 12 programs at more than 60 sites serving more than 3,000 kids. Every program was embedded with a purposeful literacy component designed to help prevent “summer slide,” the loss of literacy levels between school years.

The City is determined to be a “game changer” in addressing literacy as related to grade-level reading. With access to so many children already in summer programs, the approach was adopted to integrate intentional reading instruction into existing programming, especially summer programs.

The number of kids reached at Cobb Park were small compared to many of the City’s other programs. The impact, though, proved enormous.

“It absolutely made a difference,” Hackley said.

The Cobb Park program reached nearly 30 students, with nine in particular showing up every day. Off duty fire personnel and family members volunteered time to support the program, providing a structured routine that Hackley felt the kids appreciated.

Each day started with the students setting up the classroom by staging books and learning resources in designated areas. The kids were required to stand up and introduce themselves by name, age, grade and future occupation, which helped build confidence and communication skills. The students were then put into smaller, more manageable groups to read age-appropriate books. Games and activities followed. For example, younger kids might trace the alphabet, and color or write on the sidewalk with water-soluble chalk. Older participants could be playing chess and more advanced comprehensive games. The day ended with lunch provided by the program.

Read Fort Worth Literacy Support Specialist Stephanie Lukat used the learning resources and materials already in place to provide targeted instruction, working alongside the volunteers to share teaching approaches. Lukat employed a variety of instructional techniques that gained and maintained the interest of participants, fostering an environment conducive with the goals of the program.

“We attempted to teach/reinforce kindness, teamwork, time management, respect for others, good manners and the importance of reading,” Hackley said.

Hackley became aware of the program during a presentation at the City Manager’s Office by Director of Educational Strategies Gleniece Robinson and Assistant City Manager Valerie Washington. The 2019 trail run served to establish best practices for 2020. Some of the suggestions for next year, based on a final report, include more parental participation, a larger facility with multiple rooms, scheduled field trips and guest speakers, and projects such as arts and crafts.

Robinson attended the celebration on the last day of the program, along with more than 20 children, six community volunteers and the Fire Department staff. The celebration consisted of two students reading the book “I Will Be Fierce.” Questions were posed to the audience who enthusiastically responded. The program also gave out about 100 books for the kids to take home.

As much as the students accomplished during their six weeks at the Cobb Park program, those guys in boots came away with a new appreciation of how they can make a difference. They’re not strangers to impacting lives. This summer, however, provided a profound twist.

“The firefighters learned patience, patience, patience,” Hackley said. “They also learned how much time spent with a child matters.”

Story by Art Garcia