Palos Park sisters help high school students improve literacy

After returning from a debate camp at Harvard University this summer, sisters Bella and Mia Narciso decided to create the Turn the Page Foundation to help disadvantaged high school students improve their reading skills.

The foundation’s first partner is the iCan Dream Center in Tinley Park.

The teens, who live in Palos Park, said they met people from all over the world and heard stories of the challenges some camp participants had to overcome. When they returned, they realized they were fortunate that their parents encouraged reading.

“My parents have always thought that literacy and reading were a top priority. However, we realized that so many other families don’t prioritize literacy. So, we wanted to be able to make a difference in the best way that we can and utilize the resources we have,” Bella Narciso said.

Bella, 16, a junior at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School, and Mia Narciso, 14, a freshman at Marist High School, said after a few months of planning, meetings and paperwork they launched the Turn the Page Foundation as a nonprofit organization about two weeks go.

The foundation provides licenses for reading programs through Achieve3000, Mia said. Through researching the program, Bella said they learned it vastly improves a student’s literacy level within a semester.

To start, the students take a test so the program can measure their reading level. The program generates news articles at 12 reading levels so each student reads the same subject at their level, Mia said.

The program only shows the students’ scores to the teacher, a feature they like because it prevents marginalization among the students, Mia said. Teachers are given discussion questions to help students talk about what they’ve read, she said.

“We were drawn to the program because it’s timely. If the students who are using the program are ever in a situation where they are making small talk, they will be able to be informed about situations,” Bella said.

In August, they approached officials with the iCan Dream Center in Tinley Park, a high school credit recovery program for students with intellectual disabilities, autism and various learning difficulties, Bella said.

Katie Gira, director of development for the iCan Dream Center, said the center decided to work with the foundation because it helps make education more equitable.

“Because the reading program of Bella and Mia’s organization funds is so individualized from the standpoint of leveling, we don’t have to strip our older learners of their dignity by working on improving below grade level reading skills with content that is juvenile. This instantly levels the playing field,” Gira said.

The reading program will improve the lives of students who have already experienced challenges in their education, Gira said.

“We tell the students all the time, education is power and freedom. And it doesn’t matter what reading means to an individual, the more we know and the better we can read, the safer and more secure we are in the world,” Gira said.

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The sisters chose reading as a subject to help high school students because it is fundamental to other subjects and in life, Bella said. Through reading, students get to explore and learn about things they are interested in, she said, which could lead to future ambitions.

“Reading isn’t a chore. Literacy is vital. We do hope to inspire them,” Bella said.

Growing up, their favorite books were the Harry Potter series, Bella said. Their mother liked the series, so Bella said before she was allowed to start it she had to read Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography and write a five-paragraph essay. Mia said she wrote an essay about Hillary Clinton and Harriet Tubman before starting the Harry Potter series.

“We take a lot of inspiration from powerful women. That was a big moment for us, in terms of our educational moment,” Mia said.

When reading for school, Bella said she likes to make connections between the book and another book or show she enjoys to make it more relatable. To make reading fun, Mia said students should choose a genre, series or author they love and schedule time daily, even if it’s only 10 minutes, to read that book.

Mia said her favorite genre is romance and she’s enjoyed rereading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. Bella said she most enjoys reading historical novels and she’s reading “Beloved” by Toni Morrison.

“Once you start creating consistency with it, you’ll find that it works in your schedule and you’re able to read for passion instead of just reading for school,” Mia said.