For her, teaching kids to read goes beyond the classroom and into families’ living rooms

Mary Andrews, a retired educator who worked in Durham and Chapel Hill schools, was named the National Family Teacher of the Year.
Mary Andrews, a retired educator who worked in Durham and Chapel Hill schools, was named the National Family Teacher of the Year. Courtesy of Mary Andrews

As a teacher, Mary Andrews knew she had to get her students’ families involved when it comes to literacy. With the help of a grant, she launched the nonprofit Family Reading Partners in 2010. Earlier this month, Andrews, 70, who has worked in Durham and Chapel Hill schools, was awarded the National Family Teacher of the Year title. Here, she talks about the importance of introducing kids to books early on – and what she’ll do with the prize money from the award.

Q: Why is it important for parents to read with their kids?

A: When I was a teacher, I explored parents and children having conversations around books. I discovered that’s what really deepens intellectual curiosity and vocabulary. I really think that’s where there’s a void in our culture. Books can take conversations to places other than, “Eat your food, brush your teeth, time to get ready.”

The conversations can take you to the animals in Africa, to Mount Rushmore, to all kinds of worlds. Young children are able to absorb these ideas far more than many of us ever knew or believed. If you’re around young children, and you do it with them, you see it.

Q: Research shows there is a 30 million-word gap for some lower-income children entering school. What are the challenges for families and students?

A: Research shows there’s an economic gap sometimes when parents are involved in trying to find work and don’t have time to read with their kids. And some don’t have access to books or to libraries. Others are language, transportation, culture assimilation, poverty, familiarity with libraries and cost of books. We do everything we can at school, but they just need support at home. Support has to come from birth on.

Q: How does Family Reading Partners offer support?

A: We have group programs and individual home visitation. I model a book that I’ve chosen and ask, “What can we do with this book? Can we read it? Can we talk about the pictures?” I model that and give it to the adults and then if their child is there, they read or talk about the book with their children. And then they keep the books. So we give them the research, the modeling, and they keep the books, with the hope they’ll read more and have more conversations about that book at home.

Q: The National Family Teacher of the Year Award, given by Toyota and the National Center for Families Learning, includes a $20,000 prize. What do you plan to do with the money?

A: The hope is to expand Family Reading Partners and especially the home visitation program. We go wherever we’re invited. We have a relationship with the town of Chapel Hill, and we’re also doing a home visitation program with newborns through the Orange County Health Department and Family Success Alliance.

Once there’s a newborn, they ask the mother if they’d like us to come in and if the mother says yes, we go into the home, take six books, talk about reading and then go back six months later. We also go into the schools and work with students and teen mothers.

Q: What are you most proud of with your organization?

A: Family Reading Partners, initially funded by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation, started in 2010 in one school and now has eight nonprofit partners, reaching 500 participants last year. Our main support is the Orange Literacy Council.

Q: Who nominated you for the national award?

A: Nancy Zeman, the original parent who helped me get the grant to launch Family Reading Partners.

Q: What was it like meeting former NBA star Magic Johnson?

A: He was very gracious. He does a lot of work like this – scholarships and urban work with literacy – which is why he was the person to speak at the conference for the National Center for Families Learning, out of Louisville, Ky. There were 700 people there, and they’re all doing the same kind of work. Now we’ll hopefully hook in with them, and they’ll guide us on how to do some of this.

Reading and talking with our children is an insurance policy. The time we give our babies, preschoolers and children in elementary school reaps benefits beyond our imagination.

Would you like to nominate someone for Tar Heel of the Week? Email tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Mary Andrews – Tar Heel of the Week

Born: May 21, 1947

Raised: Cincinnati, Ohio

Family: Married, two children, four grandchildren

Organization: Family Reading Partners (familyreadingpartners.org)

Career: Retired educator for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Durham Public Schools