Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cops and kids share storytime at east end school

By Kevin Wood, News Staff
  Parents and passers-by could be forgiven for being a little concerned when they saw four police cars parked in front of Hillcrest Public School in the Oriole Crescent- Melvin Avenue neighbourhood in East Hamilton on the morning of Dec. 9.
Inside the school library, five Hamilton police officers planned their next move and checked their gear to be sure that in addition to the usual sidearms, body armor, handcuffs, batons, tasers and radios they had the special equipment needed for that morning’s assignment: Pictures books and candy canes. 
The officers of C squad at the Hamilton Police Service’s Division 2 station weren’t there to read anyone their rights, they were there to read stories to the students.
Since February 2007, subject to the need for their services elsewhere on more serious matters, police officers from the King Street East station have been coming to the school twice a month in groups of up to eight to spend some time reading to students in kindergarten through Grade 3.
Study after study has shown that reading to children at a young age helps them learn to read, but Constable Ryan Clarke says encouraging literacy is secondary; the main point of the program is to build a positive relationship with the children. Clarke organizes the reading program in cooperation with Hillcrest School l e a r n i n g  r e s o u r c e teacher Cynthia Dobrik.
The program was begun by Hillcrest principal Chuck Buttle, who has since retired, and his friend Glen Bullock, staff sergeant for C squad at Division 2. It has proved popular with both students and police officers.
“Ryan always takes the first graders, they’re his buddies,” says Dobrik, discussing class assignments with the officers before morning bell rings.
“We want them to learn that they don’t have to be in trouble to talk to a police officer, that there doesn’t have to be something bad happening for them to talk to a cop,” said Clarke.
Officers usually read to the students in their classrooms for about 20 minutes and then hold a brief question and answer session or talk to the kids about police related topics such as how and when to call 911 and how to stay safe.
Sgt. Lynda Sohal said it’s about establishing a rapport with the kids.
“It’s all about building relationships and breaking down barriers.
This gives the kids a chance to see police in a positive light,” said Sohal.
“It’s good. When you give a presentation later on, they know you and they’re comfortable with you,” said Const. Michelle Kwok.
Several of the officers mentioned having had kids they had read to at the school stop to say hello to them by name on the street.
C l a r k e acknowledges that presenting this kind of program is challenging in a higher crime area like Hamilton’s east end, where contact with the police isn’t always positive, but says that is what makes it so important and rewarding.
“We’re teaching them not to fear cops, that we’re their friends,” said Clarke.

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