The Hamilton Association for Volunteering Outreach and Charity (HAVOC) general board hosted an education and literacy panel on Nov. 17 which discussed libraries, the Common Core and the critical importance of early childhood literacy. The four panelists were Adjunct Professor Richard Hunt, Director of the Utica Public Library Darby O’Brien, America Reads Student Co-Director Erica Quach ’16, and Brian Sobotko ’16, head tutor at A Better Chance (ABC) House.

Hunt is a retired principal at Clinton High School where he worked from 1977 to 2011 and has held various roles with ABC house since 1978. O’Brien has been the director of the Utica Public Library for over 25 years and is passionate about eliminating poverty through quality education and educating the public that literacy starts at birth, if not before. Quach is a Hamilton senior majoring in Chinese and minoring in government and Sobotko is a senior public policy major minoring in history and education studies. Next year, he will be a teacher in New York City.

Moderator and general board co-chair Alan Yeh ’18, began the panel by asking what inspired Hunt, O'Brien, Sobotko and Quach to pursue careers in education and literacy.

Hunt said that when he learning one fact impressed upon him the importance of childhood literacy: the three factors that make a student successful are goals, organization and reading for pleasure. Quach attributed her love of reading to her parents and the education they provided her with. She also talked about the experience of teaching children to read in Kenya.

Sobotko said that he now realizes how fortunate he was to have attended a good public school and have parents who read to him as a child. “The more public policy and education classes I took, the inequities that exist in the world became more apparent to me,” he said. “Reading is the ticket, it’s the silver bullet.”

“The best thing to do for a child is to get them a library card as soon as they’re born. That’s what we do at the Utica Public Library, we give cards to infants,” O’Brien said. Last month, the library’s children’s programs reached over 400 preschoolers. “We’re trying to educate parents and let them know that they’re their child’s first teacher.”

Quach talked about the development of America Reads, which was started at Hamilton in 2011 working with second graders at Kernan Elementary School in Utica before expanding to a second school, Watson Williams.

Hamilton tutors go to the schools for one hour twice a week. “It does a lot and you see a lot of improvement in the kids. We’re thinking about expanding to different districts in Rome and New Hartford,” Quach said.

ABC House is an academic opportunity program in which eight young men of color from around the Northeast live together and attend Clinton High School. Hamilton students like Sobotko tutor the high school students during their daily study hours.

“A Better Chance works, it’s a success,” Hunt said. “Since 1972, 100 percent of the students have gone on to college.”

“I am angry that there is such disparity in our education system,” Hunt said. “We don’t have a fair educational system for the kids who need it most.”

When asked about their thoughts on the Common Core state standards, the panelists agreed on the necessity of standards to work toward nationwide educational equality. Additionally Hunt discussed the flawed implementation in New York State and the dangers of an overemphasis on standardized testing.

To conclude, Yeh asked the panelists about their career goals and hopes.
“I’ll be teaching through Teach for America with the broader goal of education equality, affirming the commitment to the fact that you should be able to go to a good school regardless of your zip code,” Sobotko said.

Quach said that her career goals include gaining teaching experience and working for education nonprofits. “My goal is that every child in Utica goes to kindergarten ready to read,” O’Brien said. “That’s one way to combat income inequality, set children on a path to success from preschool.”

Hunt said that he wants to see more young people go into teaching. “It’s the most important job there is because it’s the profession that starts all the others,” Hunt said. “I want Hamilton students to consider the most important profession. That’s what I’m always asking myself, how can I recruit good, young, bright, energetic teachers.”

The panel was part of HAVOC’s semester-long Education & Literacy campaign, through which the organization has raised more than $1000 to donate to the Utica Public Library.

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