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Story time for Southeast Campus preschoolers celebrates diversity

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Rut Martínez-Alicea, coordinator for the Multicultural Center (left), listens along with the children from the YMCA childcare center as Farnoosh Khodayar (center) and Elmira Fathe Azam read aloud from a book on diversity. Between six and 10 children attend the story time every Tuesday morning. Not every student at PCC’s Southeast Campus takes their studies seriously. In fact, some of them are goofy, giddy and have trouble walking in a straight line.

But what else can you expect from a 4-year-old?

Every Tuesday morning, a brood of six to 10 preschoolers each take a classmate’s hand and scamper behind their teacher across campus from the YMCA Child Development Center to the Multicultural Center in Mt. Tabor Hall.

There they plop down on the carpet and listen as two PCC student-staffers from the center, Elmira Fathe Azam and Farnoosh Khodayar, take turns reading aloud from a children’s picture book on topics surrounding diversity and acceptance of self and others. Khodayar wears a furry puppet on one hand and uses it to help keep the children engaged.

Mostly it works. While a few children need to be gently reminded to keep their hands to themselves, most listen happily and chime in with an occasional question or observation. The weekly story times are typically 15 minutes long, and the children each receive a new paperback copy of the book they have just heard to take home and keep.

Rut Martínez-Alicea, coordinator for the Multicultural Center, said she created the program as a way to “normalize” the college environment for young children and plant the seeds that may one day inspire them to pursue higher education.

Children from the preschool class at the YMCA Child Development Center make their way across Southeast Campus to enjoy story time in the Multicultural Center in Mt. Tabor Hall.

Children from the preschool class at the YMCA Child Development Center make their way across Southeast Campus to enjoy story time in the Multicultural Center in Mt. Tabor Hall.

“What we know about retention is that if college is normalized since childhood it’s very likely that a child will not only attend higher education, but will also actually finish,” said Martínez-Alicea. Holding the story times in the Multicultural Center instead of the childcare facility gives the children more opportunity to become familiar and comfortable with the college environment.

“I have my child going (to the YMCA center) and what I love about it is that it’s so diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and nationality,” she said. “I wanted to have a partnership with the center to help give the kids an introduction to multicultural life.”

She added that it’s also important for the children to hear English spoken with a variety of different accents, and the staffers who read to the children speak English as a second language. This reflects many of the youngsters’ experience with their families’ diversity and the Southeast community as a whole, she said.

Martínez-Alicea said that the program also has a “ripple effect” that reinforces the learning that happens at home with parents and caregivers.

“What I have noticed is that because the experience is so positive, the children then like the book,” said Martínez-Alicea. “So parents actually who have never come to our center are coming to say ‘thank you so much. The books you are giving to my kids are their favorite books. We read them over and over at home.

“The kids get to see not only multicultural themes and faces and many races in the books, but I believe that because they are in this community the books look more like their real lives, where they’re surrounded by differences,” she added. “(The books) aren’t promoting a fictional view of what life is.”

The new books given to the children (the YMCA facility also receives two copies of each title) are paid for by the Multicultural Center and by donations from the larger campus community.

The childcare facility opened last year in the campus’ newly renovated Administration Annex and was funded by the bond measure passed by voters in 2008. Bond money also paid for significant improvements in Mt. Tabor Hall.