For a child isolated by poverty, reading can be a critical path to escape—a link both to worlds of better possibility and the foundational skills to get there.
But in this coastal city where nearly every child in the 17,000-student Oxnard K-8 school district comes from a poor family, ready access to books and other reading materials is a huge barrier.
That’s why Superintendent César Morales, 41, has used the Oxnard district’s 1-to-1 tablet initiative as a starting point for a massive bilingual-literacy program, to develop a deep love of reading in English and Spanish among his students and their families.
Oxnard, which lies northwest of downtown Los Angeles, is home to more than 200,000 residents, 75 percent of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino—many of them immigrants from Mexico.
“You go through the enthusiasm of a [1-to-1 program] and then you have the ‘now what?’ moment,” Morales says. “Given our demographics, developing literacy skills in English and Spanish is incredibly important; promoting the frequency of families reading is incredibly important. We wanted the technology to support that above all.”
Last year, K-8 students collectively read more than a million books through the district’s reading program and showed growth on statewide reading tests. The district has invested more than $13 million in campus and community infrastructure—including amassing an electronic lending library of more than 30,000 English-language and 4,000 Spanish-language books—as well as significant training for teachers and parents alike.
“Dr. Morales was instrumental in making sure we used our tablets to promote literacy and become leaders in providing digital content to our students,” says Ernie Morrison, a school board trustee. Now, “there is no excuse for not having a book to read in the Oxnard school district.”
Thirty miles north of the wealth of Malibu, more than 85 percent of Oxnard students live in poverty. More than half are learning English as a second language.
Morales spearheaded a push to provide tablet computers for every student and teacher in the district back in 2014, harnessing money from changes to California’s K-12 funding, as well as restructuring the district’s general fund to focus on bilingual literacy for its students.
Yet the district quickly found it was not enough simply to give students tablets and e-books. In Ramona Elementary School alone, more than a dozen students are homeless, living out of cars or doubled up with other families, in homes with no regular electricity.
Morales helped set up a professional-learning community across schools to find ways to focus the new technology on bilingual reading. Schools held “App-y Hour” workshops in which teachers and principals shared the applications they had successfully used on the new tablets. Out of those discussions, Morales pushed to expand MyOn, a digital library program piloted at Ramona, and Accelerated Reader, a comprehension assessment tool used in several schools, to all schools in the district.
“One of the things Dr. Morales does so well is create the opportunity for schools to share what’s going on and getting folks to focus on where they are succeeding,” says Mary Curtis, Oxnard’s director of curriculum, instruction, and accountability. “It did take a lot of work, … but schools have small successes that they can share, and eventually, we see how it fits into the grander schemes.”
Morales has a personal connection, both to Oxnard and its richly bilingual community. Morales’ own father picked strawberries in Oxnard’s verdant fields that hug the Pacific Coast, before moving the family to Inglewood, near Los Angeles. Though the family owned few books, Morales says his mother exposed him to reading, with frequent trips to the library and signing him up “for every reading competition possible.”
“She felt if she encouraged reading in the home, that in itself was going to be the foundation for me academically. … It was something tangible she could take care of, in spite of not being able to help me with other content areas or even English,” he says. “I think she was right.”
Encouraged by his mother to read in Spanish and English, Morales fell in love with Spanish literature in high school—the Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca and the Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda were favorites—and did his doctoral education research at the University of California, Los Angeles, on connections between reading and the development of student aspirations.
Morales began his career teaching Spanish literature in Los Angeles, and later became a middle school principal. He worked his way up to serve as an assistant superintendent in two different districts, but always kept an eye out for a leadership role in a migrant community like the one his family had started in.
Morales is creating opportunities and connections not just for students but the larger Oxnard community.
Building Community Through Books
Before the literacy initiative, Christina Austin, a Ramona kindergarten teacher, says parents expressed interest in reading to their children, but had no books at home and rarely went to the local library, which lies on the other side of a busy roadway overpass. “I used to send home black-and-white copies of reading materials, just so they had something,” she says.
So the district built up supports in excruciating detail. Students can download and store up to 20 books at a time. Principals keep charging stations so students without electricity will have tablets to use at home. And the district provides Wi-Fi on each campus every day after school; Morales is working with the city to extend access citywide.
Given our demographics, developing literacy skills in English and Spanish is incredibly important, promoting the frequency of families reading is incredibly important.
At Ramona, students and parents often picnic on the front lawn after school, using the Wi-Fi connection to download books and work on homework. A taco truck and other food vendors are drawn to the spot, leading to regular community get-togethers in a neighborhood where many families do not have cars.
“The school is alive in the evenings,” Morales says.
The district also has worked to make literacy-related programs as enticing to parents as possible. Parent workshops are timed to coincide with the end of shifts at farms, and the district provides translators, child care, and food to avoid conflicts with dinnertime.
Parent workshops have progressed from the basics of how to help their children turn on, log in, and navigate the reading programs, to more-detailed tips on how to read with their children and analyze the reading data the software collects. Morales also assigned instructional coaches in literacy to every campus, who are focused on helping teachers go beyond language-arts-achievement scores to understand their students’ reading abilities.
He’s practicing what he preaches to his students at home as well, reading up to six books daily—in English and Spanish—to his 23-month-old daughter.
“The love of reading, I’ve seen the value it’s had in my education and personal life,” Morales says. “It allowed me to do well in other content areas, built my confidence, opened doors for me personally, … but I also love the ability to transport yourself to a new world.”