A combination of data from a wide variety of sources in recent years convinced the Great Start Collaborative in the Dickinson and Iron Counties of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that an early literacy initiative was imperative for their communities.
As a result, the 2013 Great Start Fund Development initiative was started to raise money for the purchase and distribution of children’s books through four initiatives. The goal is to raise $10,000 to buy 5,000 books by October 1.
“We couldn’t ignore the data,” said Barb Reisner, project coordinator for Dickinson-Iron Great Start Collaborative. “We were involved in two county community assessment surveys, a county healthcare system survey, an area Youth Access Survey, and, of course, we have the information from Kids Count — all reporting that reading is one of the lowest skills in our communities.”
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, listening, talking, reading and writing are all parts of early literacy learning. Research has found reading aloud to children is one of the most important things a parent can do to help their child develop literacy skills.
But results of a survey emailed to members of the Dickinson-Iron Great Start Parent Coalition found that while reading was valued, it was not reported as a family behavior or regular family practice. Another survey of kindergarten teachers, preschool teachers and librarians in both counties indicated that a real effort to promote and encourage home libraries was a high need for the communities.
“We want to ensure our children become successful leaders, contributing members of society who help lead to the revitalization of our state and it can’t be done without early literacy,” Ringel said.
To avoid duplication of services, the Collaborative wanted to identify organizations working on early literacy in both counties. They found 14 existing early learning initiatives across the two counties, but each initiative was very different in its approach.
The information led to the development of the Great Start Early Literacy System Team, with 20 members including representatives of the 14 early learning initiatives. The committee identified three barriers: transportation, geography and socio-economic.
Jonathan Ringel, Dickinson Iron Great Start Parent Facilitator said that with a high percentage of children living in very rural areas, and in poverty, parents are unable to buy books and few families were able to visit local libraries on a regular basis.
The Collaborative opted to raise funds to buy and distribute books to children and families. The four initiatives being funded are Reach Out and Read Program, Home Visitor Early Literacy Initiative, Great Start Book Mailboxes and Raise-a-Reader events.
Reach Out and Read is a national literacy initiative that promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms by giving new books to children and advising parents about the importance of reading aloud.
Reisner, Ringel and Collaborative member and pediatrician Dr. Alexis Whaley met with doctors in both counties to offer assistance getting doctors registered. Since January, seven doctors have registered for the program.
Great Start Book Mailboxes and Raise-a-Reader events are new initiatives created by the Great Start Early Literacy System Team and the Parent Coalition.
Recognizing that transportation is often a problem, the idea behind Great Start Mailboxes is to provide books where people are located. Ringel said the team identified numerous locations where books will be made available to families, including Department of Human Services offices in each county, Caring House (a domestic violence shelter), Head Start locations, NorthPointe Behavioral Health System, three child care centers, community centers and more.
Raise-a-Reader is a presentation model that features two or three events every month until October, targeted at informing and sharing with parents the value of reading together as a family. Children who attend will receive a new book.
“Two community surveys on adult literacy, by Northstar Health System and Head Start, reported especially low literacy rates among adults,” Ringel said. “The Raise-a-Reader events are helping children and parents improve their reading skills. You should see the children’s eyes light up when they get a book in their hands.”
Books also will be issued to families through the Home Visitor Early Literacy Initiative, and a media campaign to share the importance of home libraries is being planned.
“When young children become readers it enhances so many intellectual and social-emotional skills that directly impact school readiness,” Reisner said. “Reading comprehension for young children promotes sharing, listening and improves vocabulary, language development and cognitive skills. All important indicators of success in kindergarten.”
So far, the Great Start Early Literacy System Team has raised $5,000 as of March 15, and has purchased 1,130 new children’s books ready for distribution.