Former President Barack Obama put it succinctly: “Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible.”

It is a vital ability in our modern world, critical for educational and occupational opportunities and for the daily negotiation of our information society. It is also a source of joy for people of all ages.

In Santa Fe, many children and youth struggle with learning to read and reading to learn. We know literacy development begins at birth, and home libraries and parents reading to their children are the cornerstone for literacy development. In fact, parents reading to their children has been cited as perhaps the most critical factor in educational attainment.

Reading books aloud to children stimulates their imagination and expands their understanding of the world. It helps them develop language and listening skills and prepares them to understand the written word and then be able to write, often considered to be the highest form of critical thinking.

The Reading Group, a collaborative working group of Opportunity Santa Fe, an initiative of the Santa Fe Community Foundation, is guided by the phrase “learning to read, reading to learn." Made up of people from multiple educational organizations within the city and state, one of this year’s projects is dedicated to developing home libraries. This fall, we were awarded a Molina Foundation “Families Learning Together” grant of 55,000 books and magazines for children and young people valued at more than $400,000.

Once the books have been inventoried, we will partner with Santa Fe Public Schools to distribute them to the city's young people. Distribution to rural and tribal libraries is a work in progress in partnership with the State Library.

A culture of literacy is an important factor in building readers, and home libraries play a part, as do the examples of family members. 

Both of us had just such backgrounds.

My story (Michelle Behar Reich) goes like this:

My great-grandmother was the only literate person in her Austrian village. Thus, she was tasked with reading newspapers to her community and writing letters for them. This allowed her village to be informed about, and connected to, the outside world. My mother’s first language was Ladino (Judeo-Spanish); my father’s, Yiddish. Growing up, I heard stories about the challenges they faced while learning to speak and read English, and then teaching those skills to their parents. Knowing personally the power of literacy and understanding that power, I feel a responsibility to do whatever I can to support literacy wherever and whenever I can.

My story (Carmen Gonzales) is based here:

My mother was an elementary teacher here in Santa Fe, and I have been told by some people that she taught half of the city to read. She was passionate about teaching reading and even would go to student’s homes to tutor them when they missed a significant amount of school. She fueled my interest in teaching and in becoming a teacher/educator in the hopes of improving education. We still have work to do.

Public schools, in particular, are dependent on all manner of community support from volunteers, local business, city and county programs, the community college, and myriad nonprofits in Santa Fe. It is remarkable what a village can do.

Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave turned author and abolitionist, once said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Let us remember that reading is the gateway to new worlds. It enriches family culture and career opportunities, which all involve continuous learning and training.

Learning Santa Fe is a bimonthly column by a variety of community voices about the state of our schools and education in general. Carmen Gonzales is a member of the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education. Michele Behar Reich is a youth services librarian for the Santa Fe Public Library and chairwoman of the The Reading Group.

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