St. Paul police help kids read with alphabet program

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2013 - 11:34 PM

The department provides a clinic for beginning readers to learn the Initial Teaching Alphabet, hoping to head off later problems.

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Princewill Agbara, a tutor, spun one of dozens of kids in a “pin a badge on the officer” game Tuesday at an open house for a reading clinic at the Ames Lakes Neighborhood Community Center.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii • rtsong-taataarii@startribune.com,

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Geraldine Regis’ 7-year-old daughter, Ariel, wasn’t always the best at reading, but after she was shown another way to study her ABCs, she has become the top reader in her class.

The St. Paul Police Department is in its second year of holding its Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) Literacy Program, where children like Ariel who need help reading and writing are taught how to use the phonemic alphabet.

St. Paul is the only police department in the country to have such a program.

“When kids experience difficulty in reading, that makes kids really frustrated,” said Regis, who lives in the Ames Lake Neighborhood Apartments on the East Side of St. Paul. She also has a son in the program. Without any assistance, Regis said, kids with reading difficulties can give up and then end up out on the streets causing problems.

The reading clinic could become a model for other police departments across the country.

According to the ITA Foundation, the ITA is a phonemic alphabet based on the phonemic sound system of the English language. As opposed to 26 letters in the English alphabet, the ITA has 44 sound-symbols.

The clinic was created as part of the department’s programs at three after-school centers: Jackson Street Village, which houses formerly homeless families; Merrick Community Services, which offers a variety of youth services, and the Ames Lake Community Center, which serves mostly immigrant families who live in the apartment complex.

Middle school and elementary students at the program interact with police officers in informal settings as a way to foster positive relationships between at-risk youth and police. For the officers, it became clear while working on homework with some of the youth that many struggled with basic reading and writing.

Kids who have trouble reading are recommended to the clinic, where they are helped by tutors. In its pilot year, there were about 37 kids in the clinic and more than 20 others on a waiting list. This year, the department hopes to serve 40 to 55 kids with a similar-size waiting list.

Helping kids become successful in school is another way to prevent them from having issues with the law, authorities said.

At the program’s open house Tuesday, children enjoyed sundaes as well as games such as “pin the badge on the officer” and ring toss.

“Kids that are engaged aren’t going to act out,” said Cmdr. Tina McNamara, who is head of the department’s juvenile division.

Samantha Loe, the department’s literacy clinic coordinator, said police are trying to be more proactive instead of reactive.

“This literacy program is getting to the root of the problem and not putting a Band-Aid on it,” Loe said.

The clinic was made possible by grants from the national nonprofit ITA Foundation. The foundation awarded the program $53,760 last year and $87,217 this year.

It also help trains tutors in the clinics.

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