ROCKLAND, Maine — As area children settled into their first day of school Tuesday, Sophia Nelson, 3, scribbled blue and yellow crayons onto a white sheet of paper. She decided it was done and showed it to teacher Clelia Sigaud, who gave her a piece of tape to stick the art to the wall.
“The sticky part needs to go on the wall, OK?” Sigaud said.
Seven pieces of tape later, the art was on the wall and Sophia moved on to pulling books off the shelves.
Sophia is one of 10 children in a new literacy program offered in Rockland to help educate parents and their young children at the same time. While Sophia was at “little school” in a room at Rockland Public Library, her mother was down the street at “big school” in McLain School working through a social studies book.
Tuesday’s lessons for Mom involved the Cold War, the three branches of American government and Brazil.
“Central America and South America are broadly called Latin America,” literacy volunteer Pat Niedzielski told Ashley Nelson, 23, of Rockland.
“I never knew that,” Nelson said, poring over a colorful map.
The free program, Know and Grow, separates mothers and children into two classrooms and teaches them individualized lessons. Know and Grow is funded by a $25,000 grant from Maine Family Literacy Initiative, which is a program of the Barbara Bush Foundation. That initiative funded 16 similar programs throughout Maine this year.
Literacy Volunteers of Midcoast Maine, Rockland Public Library and RSU 13 Adult and Community Education all work to offer the Know and Grow programming in Rockland. This program allows Rockland’s literacy organizations to do something they couldn’t before: Teach mothers with young children.
“You can’t really be tutored when your 9-month-old is sitting in a stroller looking at you,” said Beth Gifford, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Midcoast Maine. “When your child is there, that is your focus. This has enabled us to serve our learners much better.”
The child care is free for children younger than 9 so long as the mother or father is enrolled in a free literacy class.
So far Rockland has four women and their 10 children enrolled. Three of the women are high school dropouts who got pregnant when they were teenagers. They are all working on obtaining their high school equivalency diplomas. The other woman is an immigrant who is learning English.
The program aims to enroll eight more people before next June.
By getting both the child and the parent, Gifford said, “it’s like getting illiteracy from both sides.”
The longer-term goals of the program are ambitious.
“This will mean a larger population of kids staying in school and finishing. The parents will get jobs and maybe go beyond just their GED and maybe get a career, not just a job,” Gifford said.
Nelson is working, one class at a time, to earn her high school equivalency diploma. Since the program started in July, she has taken her General Educational Development reading and writing tests. After social studies she will need to conquer science and math to earn her high school equivalency diploma.
She’s not excited about math.
“I don’t even know my multiplication tables,” she said.
Nelson dropped out of Rockland schools when she was in eighth grade. She was a homeless teenager and eventually got pregnant with her now 5-year-old son. Then she met her husband and had her daughter, Sophia.
Now Nelson is a stay-at-home mom, which does not suit her.
“I was getting depressed sitting home all the time. I’m not meant to be a housewife stuck inside all day. I’m glad to get out. I feel happier to be here. I’m hopeful. There’s actually hope,” she said.
Right now, without a high school diploma, she thinks the best job she could get is probably at McDonald’s. Instead, she’s thinking of attending college and maybe eventually becoming a social worker, a career she could enjoy.
Nelson sometimes worries about not being able to put food on the table. Her 5-year-old son worries about it, too.
“I don’t want him to worry about that. He’s 5. I want us to have what we need to survive. I don’t have that. I want that peace of mind,” she said.
She had wanted to enroll in an adult education program to get her high school equivalency diploma for a while, but without a baby sitter, she couldn’t make it work.
“I wasn’t able to come until the day care center opened up. I don’t have a baby sitter. I have no way of getting child care. I think it’s a great program for mothers trying to get their GED,” Nelson said. “If you don’t have your GED, you don’t have money. If you don’t have money, you can’t get child care. I don’t think I’d get my GED if it weren’t for the day care.”
While Nelson works through her studies from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday, Sophia is in her own literacy program. Since they enrolled in July, the 3-year-old blond girl learned how to hold her markers properly (not in a fist), how to draw and some of her letters and numbers.
“She loves it,” Nelson said.
And after all, this is about her improving her life for her children.
“I hope they’ll see what I went through to get where I am. I hope it inspires them to do great things.” Nelson said. “I’m going to make sure my kids do their homework.”