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How Kristi Yamaguchi is improving literacy for Pacific Islander and Latino kids amid the pandemic

Her nonprofit has increased distance-learning reading time for kids in need by 20 percent.
Scott Hamilton & Friends
Kristi Yamaguchi speaks at the Scott Hamilton and Friends Nashville Ice Show at Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 18, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn.Ed Rode / Getty Images for The Scott Hamilton Cares Foundation file

Kristi Yamaguchi has been busy during the pandemic. The Olympic-figure-skater-turned-philanthropist has been adapting to California’s remote-learning mandate in both her nonprofit work and her personal life.

Yamaguchi’s Always Dream Foundation has been working to help increase the time kids spend reading during the coronavirus pandemic. The group provides tablets stocked with digital books, as well as internet access through a mobile data plan, to students in need. Its programs were already adapted for home learning, but with additions like virtual orientation and Facebook Live storytime, they've seen an increase of 15 to 20 percent in minutes read per day.

The organization — which focuses on California, Arizona and Hawaii — has recently provided tablets to five new schools, helping 600 students.

Literacy is a pressing issue, especially now. The National Center for Education Statistics found that 21 percent of U.S. adults, ages 16 to 65, scored at or below a 1 on a five-point scale measuring literacy outcomes. Building reading skills starts young, and Covid-19 has compounded existing challenges as working parents must juggle earning income with child care, which may include remote learning. (Yamaguchi has been helping her teenage daughters with their own remote learning.)

Access alone is a serious roadblock. In 2018, 12 percent of 3- to 18-year-old kids did not have computer internet access, according to the NCES, and this figure doesn’t account for the fact that remote learning may require children to have individual screens (nor can it account for the efficacy of remote learning in general). What remains clear is that millions of students are at risk of falling behind.

NBC Asian America spoke with Yamaguchi about remote learning during Covid-19 and the work she has been doing through her nonprofit to support students in need.

NBC Asian America: What has it been like to be an educator for this whole remote-learning experience?

Yamaguchi: I think it's been very eye-opening, specifically for parents. We've always known the critical role teachers and early educators have had on our children — but now more than ever, it’s just hard.

I have a pretty flexible job schedule, and I’m able to check in on my kids and offer support here and there. But there are parents who are working and have to juggle children being home and then maybe the younger ones who need more support, because they can't sit there by themselves in front of the computer all day.

And there are also so many working parents who may not even have access to Wi-Fi or the tools that they need, much less the support and time to be able to use them.

It's really showing the big digital divide that our country is still battling that's been brought to the forefront with distance learning. It's unfortunate we live in such a high-tech digital world, particularly the Bay Area, in the middle of Silicon Valley, and there are still underserved communities who do not have Wi-Fi and internet access readily available at home.

Some school districts have stepped it up and are trying to provide hot spots and internet access as much as possible. I also think some telecommunications companies have stepped up and are doing things to help provide that internet access. But it's just important that our community has that support to live in the 21st century digital age and remote learning that may be here for a while.

NBC Asian America: How has your foundation pivoted during the pandemic? What have you been doing lately to support families who are in need right now?

Yamaguchi: Always Dream Foundation has a reading program for underserved kindergartens, where we have provided internet access, along with a digital tablet, for kids to access high-quality books that are age-appropriate. We made this pivot a couple of years ago, and I think it's proven to be so relevant right now. Our program was able to run as designed even when Covid hit.

When shelter-in-place started in California, in the first two months we saw between a 15- to 20-percent increase in minutes read per day. That just went to show that families are still able to engage in reading at home, which is huge for that age category, preschool and kindergarten age.

Because it is a home-based literacy program with extensive family engagement support, it’s more relevant than ever, and the desire and need for our Always Reading program is greater than ever. It has allowed us to continue with our plan to expand and double the number of schools we serve. Last month we launched five new schools, serving over 600 students.

One way we've had to recently pivot is that typically we have in-person orientations and touch points with the families throughout the school year. Like everyone, we’ve had to figure out how to do that virtually. During Covid we have also launched a storytime series on Facebook Live, twice a week, reading my favorite books along with some of my friends like Scott Hamilton, Polina Edmunds, Brook Lee (Miss Universe '97).

NBC Asian America: The program is very inclusive. Can you talk about the groups receiving the tablets?

Yamaguchi: Our program is bilingual. It’s delivered in English and Spanish, or both, and about 35 percent of our target population we serve is primarily Spanish-speaking at home.

We serve Hawaii as well, and several schools on O‘ahu. We do work with Kamehameha publishing, which is the largest Hawaiian publisher. They help provide relevant books for the Hawaiian population, with a focus on Pacific Islander stories, and also some books in Native Hawaiian, which we've had requests for. Hawaii is like a second home to me and my family. We saw the need, resource-wise and achievement-wise, and decided as an organization to serve that population. Because we have many friends and connections in Hawaii, we felt we could gain the support we needed to bring the program there.

Because we're small and nimble, and we really want to pay attention and listen to what our students and families want and need and what will help them become more engaged in the program.

NBC Asian America: How have you, and your foundation, navigated Covid-19-related anti-Asian racism?

Yamaguchi: It hasn't impacted the foundation or its work, but I do have two impressionable teenage daughters — they're 14 and 16. They have seen, and we all have seen, the xenophobia that's been happening, especially during the pandemic. I think seeing the world through their lens and their passion to change the climate conversation and racism that's going on right now has been really inspiring. I do all I can to support them and help make their voices heard.

NBC Asian America: What’s the most critical step to solving the digital divide?

Yamaguchi: Our grand vision is a world where the digital divide and the achievement gap no longer exist. In that perfect world, we would not be needed anymore. But in order to help us get there, our mission is to provide access to high-quality books to low-income families in the home environment and provide extensive family engagement and support to create that strong foundation of literacy.

It's really about finding 10 minutes during the day to sit down with your child, read a book with them and really try to set up some kind of reading routine at home so it becomes that foundation of learning.

NBC Asian America: Have you noticed any specific books being really popular right now?

Yamaguchi: There are so many students, it's hard to really go through all of the titles, but we are working on it right now with a data analyst to help us come up with which books kids are actually reading. One particular anecdote: There was one student who struggled with the program and our book coach reached out to the family and found a book the child loved about Taylor Swift. That catapulted her interest in books and her reading minutes went up astronomically. Pop culture has an impact.

NBC Asian America: It really is about finding that gateway book for kids, and getting into their interests. What were your daughters’ favorite books that you read to them growing up?

Yamaguchi: There are so many — they had quite a few. The classic “Goodnight Moon,” of course, finding where the mouse was on every page. And a book written by Jamie Lee Curtis called “Today I Feel Silly [& Other Moods That Make My Day].” It talked about all the different kinds of emotions you have, like anger and sadness and excitement and happiness, and how it's OK to feel all of those different things. I thought that was a really great book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.