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The power of reading: Kindergarten classrooms receive books from Imagination Library

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Nearly 50 kindergarten students gathered in the library at Elmhurst Elementary School on Wednesday morning for story time with Angela Sawyer.

Sawyer, an early literacy coordinator with the literacy program Raising a Reader, pulled from a bag the book “Stand Tall, Mollie Lou Melon” by Patty Lovell.

“I have that book,” one kindergartner announced. “I have that book, too,” another child added.

In the back of the room a group of adults started smiling. “Stand Tall” is one of the books Dolly Patron's Imagination Library is sending to participating families in Pitt County.

The kids laughed when Mollie Lou thwarted the class bully, Ronald Dirkman, and cheered when Mollie and Ronald became friends.

They cheered some more when it was announced their classrooms will receive a donation of a dozen books from Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.

Wednesday's event kicked off Imagination Library's distribution of books to the 89 kindergarten classes in Pitt County’s public schools.

The United Way of Pitt County partnered with Books from Birth Early Literacy Coalition of Eastern North Carolina to launch Imagination Library in Pitt County in May 2016.

Imagination Library sends one age-appropriate book a month to an enrolled child to read with his or her parents. The goal is to enroll children at birth and have them enter kindergarten with a home library of 60 books.

There are approximately 11,000 children age 5 and younger in Pitt County, according to Jim Cieslar, United Way of Pitt County executive director. Since Imagination Library launched last year, more than 3,300 children have been enrolled.

About 30,200 books have been mailed to Pitt County youngsters.

The program spends an average of $35 a year per child, said Melissa Adamson, United Way of Pitt County’s Associate director of community impact and communication. It is estimated it will cost $350,000 annually when all 11,000 children are enrolled, Cieslar said.

The program is placing books in kindergarten classrooms as a way to create shared experiences among children who get the books at home, Adamson said.

“You and I could have nothing in common, but if we've read the same books we can talk about the same book,” Adamson said. “We've had this vision of providing these books in the classroom so when kids run to the book shelf and pull a book off and say, 'Oh, I have this book at home,” the other kids will say, 'Me too, me too'."

Tymier Streeter and Jordan Johnson, both 6 and in kindergarten, were excited.

Jordan said his teacher likes to read books to the class, especially books about mammals and reptiles.

“And birds,” Tymier said. “We get to look at pictures and read the books.”

Kindergarten teacher Anna Riddick was thrilled.

“I think it's amazing because if the same sort of books they have at their homes are in class it makes that connection. They’ll learn the importance of literacy and that it’s not just at school but at home,” she said.

Barnes & Noble and Pizza Hut have partnered with the program to make the books available. Barnes & Noble customers donated $36,000 in books during this year’s holiday donation event. Pizza Hut donated $4,060.

Pizza Hut has a long history of promoting literacy, said Charlie Mitchell, an area supervisor with the company.

When he attended Barnes Elementary School in Wilson in the 1980s, Mitchell participated in a program in which students received coupons for a free personal pizza for every book they read.

“A lot of kids need that extra push, something to motivate them to pick up that book and motivate them to read it to the finish,” Mitchell said. “Imagination Library is empowering for kids because they are all reading the same book regardless of income or family size. They are all getting an opportunity to learn.”

Two East Carolina University professors — Sheresa Blanchard with the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and Terry Atkinson with the Department of Literacy Studies and History Education — are conducting multiple studies about the effect of Imagination Library on kindergarten readiness.

Fifty-six percent of students demonstrate readiness based on entry-level assessments, Cieslar said. He wants to see that percentage increase, and getting books into homes is key.

“There are multiple factors that impact readiness, but the one factor that we know that moves the needle significantly, more than anything, is books in the home,” Atkinson said.

Blanchard said another issue being studied is how to get all Pitt County children signed up for the program. The families that have signed up are what Blanchard calls “connected” and attend events like KidsFest or the maternity fair because they are engaged in community activities. Blanchard said the goal is to find ways to reach out to other families.

Karen Mitchell, a member of Parents for Public Schools, is distributing some of the books to the kindergarten classrooms. Mitchell’s 4-year-old grandson, Jayden Bunn, was enrolled in the program last year.

“He looks so forward to them,” she said. "He already looks to read but it really instills that love of reading and he loves to get his own mail.

“The only thing we wish is we could have started it earlier,” Mitchell said.