SPRINGFIELD – Groups and school organizations in Champaign, Madison and Clark counties hope to participate in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
The Madison-Champaign Educational Service Center and United Way of Clark, Champaign and Madison Counties want to expand the program in those three counties. They became interested in the library program after Graham Local Schools received a Community Connectors grant that pays for families to use it, and brings in mentorships for those students.
The nationwide program mails an age-appropriate book every month to children enrolled in the program, ages 0-5. The cost to sign up is $25 per child per year; the grants would pay for this cost for parents, ESC Superintendent Dr. Dan Kaffenbarger said. There are no income requirements, so any child from any socioeconomic background in that age range could take advantage of it.
Kaffenbarger said research shows having age-appropriate books in the home helps children improve their reading levels, and that carries over long after the student enters kindergarten.
“The biggest struggle schools face is a large percentage of children are coming into the schoolhouse that don’t have basic skills for learning. This is an exciting prospect for what it does for literacy levels,” Kaffenbarger said.
Graham received its grant in the summer. The school’s grant is for over $80,000 for one year, Graham Superintendent Kirk Koennecke said. The grant can be renewed as long as the state continues to fund the Community Connector program.
Community Connectors grants seek to pair schools with community resources, which is why there is an added mentorship portion to Graham’s grant, Pedraza said.
Over 200 families are registered as part of the Graham grant, Koennecke said. The district hopes to cover 300 families this year. If all eligible students in the district participated, there would be over 700 children receiving books through the program.
“The response to our new Literacy Foundation, ‘Read Imagine Soar!’ has been awesome and inspiring,” Koennecke said. “We believe in early childhood education and know early literacy is the key to long-term success for new students who enter our district. It is also a key for their families and for our district achievement over time.”
Having other agencies duplicate or expand the literacy program is encouraging, he added.
“The fact that our partners want to build on this idea and expand its influence was one of our goals. The other partners’ willingness to move forward with us is a tremendous show of support for this idea and the links it can establish for our entire county and the families we all serve,” Koennecke said.
It is estimated 60 percent of eligible families sign up for the program, local United Way Executive Director Kerry Pedraza said. In Champaign County, it is estimated there are 2,339 eligible children for the program. For 60 percent participation, that would mean about 1,403 children. The estimated cost for 100 percent participation is $31,824 a year.
In Madison County, the estimated eligible population is 2,646 children; 60 percent of that would be 1,587. To cover all eligible children, the estimated cost would be $35,996 annually.
In Clark County, there is an estimated eligible population of 8,158 children; 60 percent would be 4,894. The estimated cost for 100 percent participation would be $111,006 annually.
A huge need
The need for this program is “tremendous,” Pedraza said.
“When you look at kindergarten readiness, what they are saying is that 35-50 percent of our children that enter kindergarten are not at all ready for kindergarten. We are doing all we can to get kids ready, but the percentages are staggering.”
Pedraza said research shows in economically depressed or low income areas, there is just one age-appropriate book for every 300 households.
“It is so hard for me to fathom, because I was so lucky to have been raised in a household with books around, with newspapers and magazines,” she said.
The program is needed even if parents place a priority on reading, she said, or if they have more access to community libraries. Pedraza said libraries have said they are looking forward to signing up all those families that use this program, so kids can have access to their books. But libraries are not the only solution; Pedraza said parents often are too busy to take their children to the library, or the library is not open when the parents are available.
“I have a daughter that is a working mom who doesn’t have time to take the kids to library all the time,” she said.
And as people move away from print media, children miss out on reading over a parent’s shoulder. When parents read paper books with children on their laps, the children see the words and the pictures. If a parent is looking at a smartphone there’s less chance a child will be seeing something that prompts learning.
And literacy can be a predictor for a number of other factors, Pedraza said.
“Literacy and whether you are successful reading, or have success in school, builds on it. Illiteracy increases kids’ risk taking. The number of vocabulary words a child knows when they enter kindergarten, there’s a correlation between that and dropout rates. The literacy rate at third grade is how the government determines prison sizes. It’s so foundational,” she said.
Pedraza added research from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library shows that children in the program have a 28 percent higher pass rate on the third grade reading test than those not enrolled, no matter their economic situation.
Seeking continual funding
Kaffenbarger said the hope would be to get enough funding and grants to keep the program going for years. The ideal goal would be to provide enrollment information to parents in maternity wards, so they can begin with the program as soon as children are born.
“It’s really critical we develop a sustainable fund to keep the library going after grant dollars have gone,” he said.
Pedraza said in addition to state grants, her staff will look into local foundation grants from community groups. They also hope to work with area hospitals, so enrollment information is provided to parents when they head home with their babies.
But before that can happen, Pedraza said, they want to be sure they have enough funding to keep the program going without grants.
“We are really hoping to get the programs up and running before we even find out about (receiving) the grant,” she said. “A major portion of this is to make sure the program is sustainable. We want to make sure if we get the grant … that we can continue the program in perpetuity.
“We just want to make sure everybody has the maximum opportunity to really have the skills they need to be ready for kindergarten,” she said.
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.