By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
Members of the Literacy Coalition of Hancock County are hoping to improve early childhood literacy, and they’re looking to country singer superstar Dolly Parton for help.
The coalition has received a $10,000 HancockReads grant from the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation that will be used to pilot the Imagination Library, an international program started by Parton that sends a free book each month to any registered child from newborn to age 5.
“It’s been amazing as this program has taken hold in other communities and they’ve done the evaluation,” said Kimberly Bash, senior program officer for the community foundation.
The pilot project will impact 376 children in Hancock County, according to Bash. The ultimate goal is that 5,000 children in Hancock County would receive books as part of the program.
It’s all part of the literacy coalition’s efforts to make an impact on early childhood literacy, said chairperson Jane McCleary.
“If we don’t lay that foundation at this age in the early years and get them ready to be ready to learn in kindergarten, then we’re fighting a battle,” she said. “So we want to be proactive and reach the younger children.”
Started in 2009, the coalition was created as a way of connecting all of Hancock County’s literacy providers, ranging from preschool groups and homework tutoring to Read for Life, a program that provides reading instruction for adults who are unable to read or have limited reading ability.
“I think one of the things we thought about was there were many literacy providers all over Hancock County doing wonderful things, but in talking to them, we always got the feeling that they never really knew what the others were doing,” said Bash.
The community foundation wanted to do more to increase the communication between the groups, she said.
The coalition was also seen as a way to better facilitate the distribution of information to people who needed the services as well as to connect donors and volunteers with a way to get involved in the programs, Bash said.
McCleary said it took a while for the coalition to decide on its first focus.
“I think the problem was it was such a huge issue and we didn’t know where to start,” she said.
Several members talked with the Literacy Cooperative of Greater Cleveland and found out that group started small and first worked on early childhood literacy.
“Then we looked at our statistics and saw that we have lots of children entering kindergarten not ready to learn,” McCleary said. “Statistics show if they can’t read by grade three, they’re going to be struggling readers the rest of their life and they get farther and farther behind.
“So we made the decision we would start with early childhood literacy. And it was so interesting because the day that we made that decision, we made a motion for the board, and every single hand popped up just like that,” she said. “Everybody was ready to really get moving.”
The board now holds monthly meetings and hosts a quarterly discussion for anyone interested. A website will be operational later this month with information about all the literacy providers in Hancock County. The coalition is also seeking funding to hire a director.
“That person will be the go-to person and will continue seeking funds for the Imagination Library and would also look at where we need to expand our services,” McCleary said.
“As we move forward, we’ll certainly be looking at school-age and adult literacy. Those are all going to be part of the package on down the road,” she said. “But we’re so excited to get our focus on the early childhood.”
To address that issue, the coalition looked at different literacy programs around the country and decided to pursue the Imagination Library which serves over 650,000 children in over 1,300 communities.
Sponsored by Parton’s Dollywood Foundation, the program provides free hardcover children’s books in the mail every month. If a child is enrolled soon after his birth, he’ll receive 60 books over a five-year period.
McCleary said there have been numerous studies done to show that the program has impacted student learning.
“In Battle Creek, Mich., they found that parents were interacting with their children more, that the children were spending one to three hours a week reading the books and handling the books. They found students were performing more effectively when they went into kindergarten,” she said.
In Hamilton County (Ohio), children who participated in the Imagination Library scored higher on the kindergarten readiness assessment test, said McCleary.
“There were so many positive studies, we thought this would be a good way to impact a wide range of children,” she explained.
Bash said the cost is $25 per child per year. The program will at first focus on children enrolled in Help Me Grow which is also providing some monetary support.
“But again, we’re hoping year by year to expand that so we ultimately can get to that place where every child within that age range is participating,” Bash said.
McCleary said other activities will be held to correspond with the program. In Battle Creek, for example, day care providers know which books are being sent each month, and they coordinate their reading activities with the books the children receive at home.
“I think we have people in the community who really will support this because little children and their ability to read is so important,” said McCleary. “And I know that we have teachers that have already volunteered to do workshops in the local schools, to bring parents in and make it a fun night where there are interactive activities but at the same time modeling the reading skills that could be taught to your children in a fun way.”
Former chairperson and current library director Jeff Winkle said the coalition will also have to think about fundraising as a way of sustaining and expanding the program.
“Getting a $10,000 grant is wonderful for a year, but we don’t want this to be a year thing. This is a generational thing,” he said. “We can change lives by doing this over a long time frame so I think as we plan, we need to be thinking about sustainability.”
He hopes the public will be supportive of the idea.
“I’d like to think there’s an awful lot of people out there who would say, I would be happy to give $25 to sponsor one child for a year, and businesses that might say, I’ll sponsor 100 children or whatever,” Winkle said.
Besides helping prepare children for kindergarten, Bash is also hoping that people will see the program as a preventive measure for the future.
“That (5,000) may seem like a daunting number,” she said. “But when you look at the critical nature of those foundational skills, and if we’re not doing that, what’s happening down the road with health care costs, remediation and later on in K-12, education, and further on when it comes to employment issues? That if we could spend that now, provide that base of knowledge now, how much would we be saving down the road?
“It’s hard for people to think in that way,” she said. “But I really hope that they do and know that this investment is critical.”
For more information about the Literacy Coalition or the Imagination Library, call 419-424-7865.
Wolf: 419-427-8419 Send an E-mail to Jeannie Wolf
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