University of Southern California


Working with our neighbors to build a strong community

USC shines light on literacy programs for local youth at book festival

As part of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this past weekend, many parents and children from the neighborhoods surrounding the USC University Park and Health Science Campus experienced fun-filled and educational activities. They also learned about USC’s progress in advancing literacy in the local community.

Braving rainy weather and big crowds, families filled the USC Communities Tent for two days during the 21st annual book festival, the largest literary and cultural festival in the country, which was held at USC for the sixth consecutive year.

Tent events showcased students who have benefitted from the university’s Civic Engagement programs, and the teachers who have helped them to succeed. Included were readings of children’s books by authors and community leaders, and book giveaways to every child who came to the Tent, thanks to the sponsorship of Scholastic Publishing. Children also celebrated the written word with singing, dancing, face-painting, coloring, and lots of smiles.

A new literary star

Ximena Salas, a ninth-grade student in the honors English class at Foshay Learning Center, just blocks from the USC campus, is one shining example of the university’s strides in advancing literacy in the community. Salas won first place in a recent short-story contest, a pilot project under the university’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), which partners with Foshay and other local schools to enhance the pre-college learning of students from low-income neighborhoods.

“I was in shock at first, but I’m very proud, and winning the contest made me realize that maybe I can make writing a career for the rest of my life,” said Salas, who won a $1,000 scholarship that she hopes to use at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “I would like to encourage other writers who are shy or not confident about their writing to just go for it.”

Salas was urged to enter the contest by Lizette Zarate, assistant NAI director and a former Foshay student herself, who was impressed by Salas’ earlier writing. Her winning story will appear in Literature for Life, a magazine project of another Foshay alumnus, author Jervey Tervalon, a former USC lecturer in English.

Kudos to teachers

Five exceptional teachers were honored at the book festival for their work in promoting literacy among elementary school students within the USC Family of Schools. Receiving the 2016 Read OnTeacher Salute Award were:

  • Elizabeth Dominguez Grade K, Vermont Avenue Elementary
  • Susan Courtney Grade 1, Norwood Street Elementary
  • Betty Lewis-Gomez Grade 1, Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary
  • Dixie Duran Grade 1, Griffin Avenue Elementary
  • Frank Cooper Grade 3, John W. Mack Elementary

All these teachers “go over and above” for the children in their schools, according to Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of USC Educational Partnerships.

“They collaborate with other teachers, and lift them up with what they have found works best in classroom,” she said. “Many went to professional development outside of school and brought back what they learned to other teachers. They also visit the homes of their students, helping parents to develop an environment that supports what’s done in the classroom. Several of them live in the neighborhoods where they teach, so they are part of the community.”

John Thomas, chief of the USC Department of Public Safety, is another longtime supporter of literacy programs in the local community and was one of the featured readers at the Tent. The chief, who said he still often reads children’s books because of their creativity and art, treated the audience to a reading of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, and asked his young listeners for their feedback.

Expanding libraries for kids

Thomas also initiated a local outpost of an international movement called The Little Free Library. Two years ago, one was established in the University Gardens housing development near campus, and he said another one is planned for Hazard Park in East Los Angeles.

Besides Thomas, other readers at the Tent included news personality Alysha Del Valle, author and musician Jose Luis Orozco, and author and USC Professor Oliver Mayer.

And, spearheaded by the USC Greek Councils, the “Read On!” book drive concluded on Sunday, obtaining funds for books and book contributions from USC students and alumni groups for distribution to elementary school students in the USC Family of Schools.

By Robin Heffler