May 14, 2019-- This past fall Joseph A. Citta Elementary School became one of 144 applicants (and one of five winners from Toms River Regional Schools) to receive a grant worth $10,000 from OceanFirst Foundation to fund a model classroom. With this funding and the support of community partners, the school transformed a traditional fifth-grade classroom into the Citta Scholars Literacy Lab, which it unveiled today during a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"The Citta Scholars Literacy Lab has become the heart of our school," wrote Citta School Supervisor Shannon Brown in her invitation to the ceremony. "With a large variety of hands-on and highly engaging literacy resources and the support of our reading interventionists, the energy, momentum, and drive for success is almost palpable."
Brown's invitation proved convincing as the event was attended by Assistant Superintendents Deb McKenna, Marc Natanagara, and James Ricotta; Director of K-5 Curriculum Cara DiMeo; Coordinator of the Office of Grants and Communication Mike Kenny; Citta Principal Mallory Kennedy; and OceanFirst Foundation's Katherine Durante and Stephanie Toal.
The tour began with a walk-thru while class was in session, with the room's three reading interventionists-- Jenny Azzarello, Emily Marino, and Kate Melson-- working directly with students. The transition from an open, traditional, desk-filled classroom to one with pocketed spaces now allows for multiple groups of students to refine their literary skills without distraction.
The spirit of the new space is positively zen. Lush blue tones cover the newly painted walls, and soft relaxing music plays from the room's speakers. The space is also impeccably organized, which meets the project's goal of teachers and students having free and easy access to manipulatives, while at the same time fostering a culture of responsibility.
"The students like to shine," said Melson while describing how much the students enjoy showing Citta's teachers where to find everything they need within the newly remodeled space.
Paint and dividers were donated by community partners, and school staff and their families worked hard over the summer to convert the space. Games, manipulatives, and texts were tested and then purchased through the grant. These resources are bagged with accompanying handouts, and available for any Citta teacher to use within any classroom.
"One of the challenges we've faced is identifying materials for use," said Brown, "and with this we've been able to build capacity for teachers."
The school's needs were the driving force behind its application and intent to create the model space. Since 2011, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students attending Citta has grown from 20 to 38 percent of the total school population. As its demographics changed, school leaders like Kennedy and Brown found that many students weren't being exposed to important pre-reading skills that foster success in school, and that some families weren't able to purchase books for at-home reading and didn’t have the means to travel to the local library.
"Our goal is to convey that all readers are scholars," said Brown. "With this dedicated space, we are able to provide intensive support to students struggling with reading and writing."