MANSFIELD — Superintendent Teresa Murphy is pleased to announce that the Mansfield Public Schools will welcome back the popular iCARE program at its Pre-K and elementary schools later this school year.
The iCARE program, or “Introducing Children to Acceptance through Reading and Education,” uses volunteer storytellers to teach students about the differences that exist among students, in particular those with disabilities, as well as treating others with respect and inclusion. Volunteers read stories to children, engage in question-and-answer sessions and provide important context for the discussions.
The program has run in Mansfield since 2003, but was put on hold last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning. Administrators are eager for it to return later this year.
“The many benefits of the iCARE program make it something we were very eager to bring back to our schools this year, and we are glad to be able to open our doors to volunteers once again to make it possible,” Superintendent Murphy said. “We are constantly looking at ways to promote diversity and inclusion within our schools, and this program does a wonderful job at teaching our students important lessons about accepting one another and treating others with kindness.”
History of the Program
Mansfield resident Kim Piro’s daughter Jamie entered kindergarten in town in 2002. Jamie, who has autism, was placed in an “integrated” classroom with the general student population and had trouble adjusting to her new school environment.
Piro volunteered to read a book to Jamie’s kindergarten class that helped explain certain specifics about students with autism, and the visit resulted in an in-depth and constructive discussion about inclusion and acceptance. As she did more volunteering and readings, Piro quickly saw the benefits of starting an open dialog around the issues.
“If you are going to have an integrated classroom there needs to be a certain level of education around what makes each student unique, and students need to know they’re able to speak up when they have questions or want to know more,” Piro said. “One of the main goals of iCARE is to create a safe space where we can open a dialog and have difficult conversations in a supportive way. No one has all of the answers about these topics, but we’ve found that once you get students talking, they open up and want to learn more. We of course scale the readings to the appropriate grade level, but these are discussions you should have with students as soon as possible.”
Administrators saw the benefit of Piro’s readings as well, and the iCARE program officially launched in 2003 when Piro agreed to bring the readings to all Pre-K-5 classrooms in the district. The majority of the books used at the start were acquired through donations, and Piro started the Jamie Fund in 2004 in order to sustain the program through additional donations and fundraising.
The program has become a sustainable and recurring fixture in the district, and a team of roughly 25-50 members of the community have been in the rotation of volunteers at any given time.
In 2019, Jamie started coming with her mom to help with readings, and she also began volunteering as a teacher’s assistant in the district, which she still does to this day.
In addition to Mansfield, the program has expanded to include volunteers in as many as 37 schools in Massachusetts and 12 other states.
Volunteers Needed For This Year
Piro said she wasn’t sure if the district would agree to bring the program back so soon, especially given the ongoing pandemic, but was thrilled when Superintendent Murphy said she was interested in resuming readings this year.
The program already has enough volunteers to run visits at one of the three Pre-K-5 schools in the district starting in January, with the goal of reaching all three schools by March. Volunteers will adhere to COVID-19 restrictions whenever they enter a classroom.
News of the program’s return has been met with excitement among each of the three schools.
“As one of the three schools that hosts volunteers, the Robinson School is thrilled to have the iCARE program return this year to work with the community’s youngest students in developing an understanding that all children are different and that we must love, celebrate and respect everyone,” Robinson Principal Ryan Gentili said. “The iCARE program continues to support our school-wide expectation of ‘Be kind, be safe, and be responsible.’ We thank Kim Piro for all her hard work in keeping this program running all these years, and thank the many volunteers who have participated since the program began.”
Piro said they are actively recruiting new volunteers for this year and beyond. Those interested are able to volunteer around their schedule, and training is provided for all who take part.
To sign up to become a volunteer, email Piro at email@example.com or call 781-630-0463.
Kim and Jamie have already done a special visit to a Jordan/Jackson classroom this month, when they did a reading and project with Dr. Rayna Freedman’s fifth grade class using the book “The Friendship Puzzle” by Julie Coe. Students learned about the various traits of those with autism, about Jamie’s upbringing as an autistic student in Mansfield, and shared their own experiences with those with autism.
“It’s great to be able to return to the classrooms and continue the iCARE program’s mission, and I’m just so grateful for the continued support of the Mansfield school administration and greater Mansfield community,” Piro said. “I never thought that the program would grow this much when I started it all those years ago, but it’s been a wonderful experience and we’re looking forward to another great year.”