In honor of National African American Parent Involvement Day, "Read Your Heart Out" Day will take place on Friday, Feb. 8 at 15 schools throughout the Madison Metropolitan School District.
For the past 8 years, Michelle Belnavis, a cultural relevance instructional resource teacher (K-5) for MMSD, has been coordinating a "Read Your Heart Out" Day with the support of many of the MMSD staff. The purpose of this event is to support both the family involvement and cultural relevance components of the MMSD Strategic Plan.
Belnavis organized the inaugural event at Midvale Elementary School where she first combined it with the celebration of NAAPID, which is Feb. 11. Ann Arbor, Mich., Public Schools Principal Joseph Dulin conceived the idea of a National African American Parent Involvement Day after accepting the challenge given at the Million Man March to return home and do more to build, involve, and increase their commitment to improving the quality of life in their community, particularly for African Americans.
“We started this all at Midvale School and we have increased participation over the last seven years to now include 15 schools,” Belnavis says in an interview with The Madison Times. “It really is incredible. It’s just so exciting. The participation has grown so much that we’re really having to rethink our audience for participation and it’s giving us an opportunity to focus in on parents and getting the parents in.”
Time and time again, research supports parental involvement as a viable means of enhancing children's academic successes. The intention of "Read Your Heart Out" Day is to build positive family, community, and school relationships and to really encourage and to continue to support parent involvement in the schools. This national observation provides a vehicle to open up dialogue among teachers, parents, and students that will lead to a more conducive learning environment for every student, from kindergarten through college. Parents are encouraged to participate. The theme is talking about SANKOFA — Schools And Neighborhoods Keep Our Families Alive.
“The focus this year is on learning from the past, [and] building in this present to create a better future for our kids and our families…. That’s the whole SANKOFA theme that we’ve adopted,” Belnavis says. “Each year, ‘Read Your Heart Out’ gets bigger and better because we really listen to our families and our schools about what they need.”
This community and school partnership event has really blossomed since that first year at Midvale. It has seen the participating schools increase to include: Falk, Hawthorne, Lowell, Mendota, Allis, Nuestro Mundo, Crestwood, Randall, Franklin, Glendale, Emerson, Schenk, Lakeview, Stephens, and Leopold elementary schools .
What used to be just a few celebrity readers at one or two schools has vastly expanded, too. Minority student coordinators from across Madison will bring their Black Student Union groups to read. There will be student athletes from West, East, La Follette, and Memorial and students from the UW-Madison School of Education and from the Doyle Administration Building. Mayor Paul Soglin will be a guest reader at Falk Elementary School. Students will be drumming at Hawthorne and Lowell elementary schools and doing open mic spoken word poetry and Falk and at Schenk. “Parents will be able to see that the community cares about their children and care about things that are mentioned in that [MMSD Achievement]Gap Plan,” Belnavis says. “They’ll see that it’s much more than talk and that people are following through with action steps. That’s really powerful.”
There will be special leaders and keynote speakers including Johnny and Mona Winston, school board member James Howard, Boys and Girls Club of Dane County President Michael Johnson, and Will Green from Mentoring Positives. There will be soul food luncheons catered by Melly Mel’s at Randall and Hawthorne schools.
But it’s much more than community members and local celebrities. Over the past few years the emphasis has really shifted to the parents and the family members. “Now the focus is on making the reader list more inclusive of families, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles,” Belnavis says. “We’ll see more family members reading this year than community members.”
Parent participation in the lives of their students is so important to their academic success. “In honor of National African American Parent Involvement Day, we’re asking teachers and principals to really extend invitations to families… not just paper invitations but really making an effort to make personal face-to-face contacts whether it be at home or at school or in the community when the see a family out,” Belnavis says. “We really want them to make that extra effort as indicated in the [MMSD Achievement] Gap Plan. The plan talks about family relationships and building on that because when you increase that level of belonging for our families and they feel like they matter, then that’s when the participation results in more student achievement success.”
Belnavis’s vision is to continue to build capacity and expand horizons with this event and to keep adding more and more schools to "Read Your Heart Out" Day.
“The greatest satisfaction for me is the response I get from the students, the parents, and the families in the survey that we hand out each year,” Belnavis says. “Each year, we get input back and the response is overwhelmingly positive [like,] ‘Wow! This was the best school event that I’ve been to!’ The kids feel so empowered because they know that this is a day to recognize them… especially our students of color. This is an opportunity for culture to come alive through literacy. When you combine culture and literacy together — it’s a day that’s very powerful. It’s very positive.
“Just knowing that people have joined together to make the event successful is very empowering for me,” Belnavis adds. “I get a lot of help with this event. To see people come together — teachers and principals and community members — recognizing the importance of celebrating culture and reading…. that makes it all worth it. It’s a beautiful day!”
Interested in participating in “Read Your Heart Out Day”? Contact Michelle Belnavis at firstname.lastname@example.org.