Local High Schooler Champions Childhood Literacy for Young Mothers

A red ball of yarn flies across a group of mothers gathered at Phoenix Charter Academy Chelsea. “Okay, now tell us your favorite thing to do with your child,” Yahaira Villanueva says, reminding a fellow young mother about the discussion prompt.

Yahaira, the driving force behind this gathering, is a senior at Phoenix Chelsea, a charter public high school that recruits and educates students whose needs have not been met by other schools. Many students at Phoenix have previously dropped out of school, or face some kind of challenge in their life that would normally interfere with their education in more traditional school settings. In addition to being a senior at Phoenix Chelsea, Yahaira is the proud mother of a nearly 2-year-old boy named Angel.

As the conversation wraps up, the ball of red yarn is tossed back to Yahaira. She shares her own response to the prompt: her favorite thing to do with her son is to read. By this point, the yarn has been tossed around from mother to mother so many times that the inside of the circle resembles a red spider web. Yahaira reveals the purpose of the activity, connecting the web to her love or reading to her son: “this web we’ve created symbolizes ns that our children’s brains make when we read to them,” Yahaira explains.

Yahaira first became interested in early childhood literacy in the fall of 2021, after attending a workshop led by Guadalupe Panameño, a Program Reader from Raising A Reader Massachusetts. The workshop was held in Phoenix’s Child Development Center, an on-campus daycare that serves children of parenting students and staff members while also providing a community of support and training opportunities.

“Before that first workshop, I didn’t really have much knowledge of how my son’s brain worked,” Yahaira explains. “It blew my mind to learn that Angel’s brain was creating 700 synapses, or connections, each second.”

Yahaira quickly became hooked on Raising A Reader’s program. She began bringing home their patented “red bags” each week, little pouches containing children’s books. It wasn’t long before Angel became more interested in books, says Yahaira, picking them up even when no one was reading them to him.

Unfortunately, Yahaira had been one of only a few students present for the Raising a Reader MA workshop last fall. While school buildings had fully reopened, many parenting students, including Yahaira, were having a hard time returning to school amidst fears for their children’s health, in addition to other pressures exacerbated by the pandemic.

As the school year went on, Yahaira began preparing for graduation. Part of that preparation included her Senior Project, a graduation requirement for all Phoenix seniors. The “capstone” project is designed to engage students in deep research, presentation and community outreach, all 21st century skills that are aligned with Phoenix’s competency-based learning model.

When it came time for Yahaira to develop her project, she knew exactly what she wanted to focus on: early childhood literacy and brain development. So she reached out to Guadalupe and invited Raising A Reader MA her back to Phoenix Chelsea for another workshop. This time, however, Yahaira made sure that all of her fellow mothers attended, and even invited staff members, too.

As part of her project, Yahaira researched early childhood literacy, planned activities, and co-facilitated the workshop with Guadalupe. She was also responsible for recruiting the workshop participants, creating a budget, and liasoning between school staff and Raising A Reader MA. During the workshop, participants learned about the importance of childhood literacy, and watched as Yahaira and Guadalupe demonstrated techniques for how to engage children in reading before practicing themselves.

“I think her Senior Project was special because it was so personal for her,” says Justin Zullo, Phoenix Chelsea’s Manager of Post-Secondary Success. “The skills Yahaira demonstrated in the workshop are the kinds that are going to serve her when she’s applying to college, participating in professional interviews – there are just so many applications.”

As co-facilitators, Guadalupe and Yahaira seem to share a natural and deep connection. Beyond motherhood and their passion for literacy, they both have roots in El Salvador, and it is clear that they enjoyed their collaboration on the project. “She’s so mature and passionate – I know that she will achieve whatever she has in mind,” says Guadalupe. “She’s an incredibly hard working woman, and an example to other young mothers.”

Yahaira is currently studying to be an EKG technician, and hopes to eventually go into nursing. “After I graduate, I hope that another mom will take this project on, partnering with Raising A Reader MA. And hopefully we’ll have a lot more moms signing up to attend Phoenix,” says Yahaira. When asked what message Yahaira wants to share with other young mothers in high school, she explains: “I know how hard it is to juggle having a job, being a full-time student, and being a mom at the same time. But remember that at the end of the day, you can do it.”

The Phoenix Charter Academy Network was founded in 2006 and serves over 500 students across Massachusetts, with schools in Chelsea, Lawrence, and Springfield. A network of alternative schools, its mission reads: “The Phoenix Charter Academy Network operates schools that challenge resilient, disconnected students with rigorous academics and relentless supports, so they take ownership of their futures and succeed in high school, college, and as self-sufficient adults.”

Raising A Reader MA is an early literacy family engagement organization working to close the literacy opportunity gap by helping families develop high impact home reading routines.

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