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Lit takes a village for pre-K education

Families and community organizations join early literacy programs to give students a strong start in school
  • FAMILY STORY TIME—Whitfield County Schools in Georgia has developed a range of early literacy programs that encourage parents and caregivers to discuss books with their children.
  • WORDS COUNT—Volunteers with Books for Keeps, a nonprofit in Athens, Georgia, hold book fairs in school libraries to get young children excited about reading, particularly while they are on summer vacation.
  • READING TOGETHER—Parents are a child's "first teacher," and therefore play a key role in early literacy programs at Shakopee Public Schools near Minneapolis.

Books represent just a part of the early literacy equation. Districts and community organizations now provide transportation, meals, summer lessons and family activities to prepare children for kindergarten reading.

“The biggest challenge for closing the literacy gap is to address its cause: an opportunity gap,” says Nell Duke, professor of literacy, language and culture at University of Michigan. “Providing access to high-quality pre-kindergarten education is an important strategy for laying a strong foundation for literacy development.”

Children in higher socioeconomic classes tend to have greater access to high-quality child care and pre-K programs that extend literacy from school to home, Duke says. To close this gap, district leaders can forge partnerships with organizations that already serve early learners. Administrators are also designing and operating programs themselves.

“It’s important for programs to include parents because they are their child’s first teacher,” says Kim Latterner, an early childhood coordinator at Shakopee Public Schools near Minneapolis. Shakopee reports that about 50 percent of students come to school not ready, and teachers have noticed four different reading levels in kindergarten classrooms.

The district’s homegrown Parent, Adult, Child and Education (PACE) literacy program aims to change that by boosting literacy before students enter their formal schooling years. PACE combines adult English language classes with early education for children up to age 4.

State and federal funding allow the district to offer transportation and lunch for families that attend PACE.

Parents and children play together to improve English communication skills. By interacting with other students and talking to their parents in both English and Spanish, children develop social and emotional skills that also build their academic abilities, district officials have found.

“In some English language learner families, kids surpass their parents by third grade,” Latterner says. “If we don’t help parents navigate the school system, basic skills and technology, there’s a disconnect between parents, schools and kids.”

'Recipes for Success'

Whitfield County Schools in Georgia has launched several initiatives that reach out to families—many of whom are low-income, minority and non-native English speakers—to promote school readiness and on-grade level reading.

“We’ve seen significant gaps when children enter kindergarten, and some are significantly behind even in pre-K,” says Michelle Caldwell, elementary curriculum director in the 13,000-student district. “We’ve found the biggest challenge is from birth to age 3.”

Learning academies—operated in partnership with nearby Dalton State College—provide literacy activities that parents and young children can complete at home. Families receive backpacks filled with books and worksheets to foster reading, speaking, listening and writing skills by using everyday, household objects.

In Recipes for Success, a six-week program hosted in elementary school cafeterias, parents and students learn to read recipes by cooking together, budgeting for groceries and talking about nutrition.

For two hours per week, teachers and representatives from a local nonprofit, Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership, talk families through the recipes, helping with new words, concepts and foods. At the end of each session, children take home books that feature healthy recipes.

Book Blasts, also held at the elementary schools, invite parents and students to move through stations where they play literacy games, create crafts, read classic children’s stories and take books home.

When school lets out, the Summer Libraries program—also hosted at Whitfield’s elementaries—offers literacy materials to parents, students and family members who don’t have the resources at home.

Dalton State student literacy teachers also tutor elementary and middle school children during summer lunch programs.

Books everywhere, always reading

The priority should be getting books to students, says Andrea Tejedor, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and technology at Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery Central School District in West Point, New York.

Studies in recent years indicate that the more books children read—even below reading level—the better their comprehension and ELA test scores.

Michael McElduff, the elementary principal in Tejedor’s district, developed several learning spaces specifically to provide books to students.

The BEAR initiative, which stands for Books Everywhere Always Reading, put bookshelves in hallways and on two mobile carts in the cafeteria. Students can pick out to read books while they’re waiting to enter classrooms in the morning or leaving the lunchroom in the afternoon.

To fill the shelves, the district reached out to Scholastic Corporation for donations and added surplus books from the schools’ libraries.

This year, students seem to be reading everywhere, Tejedor says. “We found that our students were struggling with literacy even until grades 3, 4 and 5,” Tejedor says. “We wanted to make changes that were appropriate at the primary level to get books into children’s hands.”  

At the community level, the district is working with the local library to stock “community libraries,” which are small birdhouse-like structures at public places that encourage residents to “take a book, leave a book.”

“When children are at the laundromat with their parent or guardian, they can pick up a book and read,” Tejedor says. “The idea is to make books accessible.”

OK with Disney princesses

Districts are also building community partnerships with nonprofits such as Books for Kids in New York, Books Between Kids in Houston, Book Harvest in Durham, North Carolina, Promising Pages in Charlotte, and Books for Keeps in Georgia. These programs send books home with at-risk children to build their own libraries.

“If we treat the brain like a muscle, it gets stronger the more we use it,” says Leslie Hale, executive director of Books for Keeps in Athens, Georgia. “As we explain to the kids, if you want to be good at something, you have to practice it, just like a sport.”

The premise is to keep that brain muscle elastic by giving children access to books they’re excited to read. At book fairs in the school libraries where Books for Keeps volunteers, students are encouraged to pick 12 books to take home.

Volunteers have no qualms about offering books with Disney princesses, Marvel’s The Avengers superheroes, Lego characters or Star Wars stories, as long as students are thrilled to read.

Books for Keeps has completed a program evaluation that shows reading skills improve during the summer when students take books home. On average, students advance about one to two months in reading levels, rather than slipping behind while they’re not in school.

“Go where the students are,” Hale says. “That’s the best way to capture every single student.”


Carolyn Crist is a freelance journalist based in Athens, Georgia.