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What Muskegon County is doing to help kids read

Allison Keessen reads during storytime at the North Muskegon Branch Library.

Not all kids find it easy to sit down and read a book.

Children play during story time at the Muskegon Area District Library.

Allison Keessen leads children and parents in reading.

Early childhood reading programs are a focus in Muskegon County.

Imagine a school superintendent who gives away books to every child he meets around town. A company where, instead of a Christmas gift exchange, the employees bring books to be given to children. School wood shop classes building "book houses," or little free libraries, instead of birdhouses. A family who, instead of accepting flowers and memorials for a loved one who passes away, asks the community to bring children's books to donate.

This isn't happening in some magical land, all made of books and peopled by smiling children. It's becoming everyday life in Muskegon County, Michigan. 

Thanks to a wide-ranging consortium of schools, libraries, policymakers, parents, educators, health care and social services agencies, businesses and even the mainstream media, a comprehensive program of literacy and reading for young children and their parents is spreading throughout the community. It's called Read Early, Read Often, and there are more than 40 partners spanning every segment of Muskegon County helping it happen. 

"We have a lot of partnerships in this community and lots of venues to get the word out. It's a really collaborative county to work in; it makes it very natural for people to just call each other up and say, 'Hey, let's work on this'," says Kathy Fortino, associate superintendent at Muskegon ISD. "And reading to babies and toddlers -- everyone gets that and why it's important, so it's easy to get people behind it."

One of the driving forces, she says, is an organization called Thrive. It's a community-based movement formed by Muskegon County business, education and community leaders determined to improve the local economy--and part of that is working on goals like proficiency in reading by kindergarten and in preschool.

Besides Thrive, those behind Read Early, Read Often are numerous, and include Muskegon Family Care, Great Start, local chambers of commerce, United Way, local school districts, MLive Media Group, Baker College, Catholic Charities, mental health agencies, DHS, area libraries, the Head Start and Early Head Start program, and many others.

"What makes this campaign different is that none of these 'partners' gave us any money," says Kristin Tank, public information officer at Muskegon ISD. "They determined what resources they had and then used those resources to help send the Read Early, Read Often message. Maybe by having staff wear pins, putting the message on grocery bags, hosting a reading event, displaying a yard sign, (or) conducting a new and used book drive."
Tank has been working to get the word out and make those connections across the county. She says the whole idea started last year, when area educators were discussing reading proficiency among their elementary-aged students.

"Rather than talking about traditional curriculum topics, interventions, or professional development, the group instead focused on impacting the lives of children (from) birth to five," she explains. "Data shows significant deficits in early literacy skills starting at age three in Muskegon County. The conversation sparked a new movement to change the culture to one that reads to infants and toddlers 'every day, everything, everywhere.'"

Fortino says that's exactly what they are telling parents through a related program, Read Muskegon, which focuses on adult literacy in company with Read Early, Read Often--because literate parents have as big an impact on child literacy as anything. They encourage parents to read to their children all the time; help them identify words at the grocery store, for example, or read the back of a cereal box at breakfast, or read aloud to the child as a parent studies a textbook of their own. 

And, they're working on creating that magical land, too, at the Muskegon Area District Library, which is undertaking a $2 million capital campaign to build Storyville, an addition to the library that assistant director Richard Schneider calls  "a little Disneyland, but with books," with seven themed play areas filled with related books and focusing on learning. They include Baby Garden, Toddler Bay, a library (of course), a house with kitchen, a store, a theater with a stage and puppets, and a "construction zone" play area. It's based on a similar model first created in Baltimore.

When finished, the 3,000-square-foot Storyville will be open to anyone, library card or not. The only rule is that children need be accompanied by an adult, and adults need to be accompanied by a child.

Currently, the library is in the private fundraising stage of a capital campaign totaling $2 million, and soon will open it up to the public. Schneider says at that stage, an architect will be hired and design and construction should be completed over the following eight months.

"So hopefully in a year or so we'll be cutting a ribbon," he says. Afterward, Storyville will be run out of the library budget, and will be the center of more collaborative efforts taking place around the Read Early Read Often program.

For instance, Muskegon Community College and Baker College both have early childhood development curriculums and will be having students work with the children who visit Storyville. Great Start and the Muskegon ISD also will be linking into programs there.

Schneider says Storyville, as ambitious as it is, is just part of a larger effort at the library and throughout Muskegon County to put together more services for children ages birth to five and their parents to encourage early childhood reading.

"What we're wanting to do is build literacy for the littlest kids and their parents," he says. 

That's what is most important for everyone involved, and, says Kristin Tank of the ISD, success in that department will have lifelong impact for future generations in Muskegon County.

"Reading builds brains," she says. "Recent research results show that babies and toddlers who are read to often will have heard as many as 30 million more words (by the time they reach school age) than children who aren't read to."

"We also know that young children who are read to at least three times a week are almost twice as likely to receive top reading scores, and those that have the highest exposure to reading at home have advantages in spelling and alphabet knowledge through third grade," Tank says, and adds that even without those advantages, it is possible for young children's brains to "catch up" after six months of daily reading in their early years.

While the benefits in school are clear, reading also has less tangible benefits for both young children and their parents, she says. 

"Reading helps children bond to safe, consistent adults; helps them learn to listen and focus; introduces new words; helps build their imagination and celebrate our world; and improves school readiness and future success in school and life," Tank says.

There are 11,000 children younger than five in Muskegon County; and, says Schneider, about one-third of them are economically disadvantaged. Combine that with the statistic of how many fewer words a child living in poverty has heard by age five, and it's clear that this is a community where "read early, read often" is needed. 

The library and the ISD have plans to reach those kids who need them the most. When Storyville is built, Schneider says, staffers will track which school districts kids visit from, and increase promotional efforts toward those who have a higher percentage of disadvantaged students. The library helped promote the Read Early program with TV ads, too, as part of its existing advertising budget, to help reach households who might not be typical readers.

Read Early, Read Often already is reaching out on social media, through WIC offices, health clinics, local food pantries, and social service agencies to connect with the families who need reading support the most. Again, they're getting lots of help from partner agencies to do so. The Salvation Army asked for stickers and buttons promoting the program to place on food pantry items given out to local families, and Muskegon Area Career Tech Center students designed and printed hundreds of free onesies and t-shirts with Read Early messages for new babies in local hospitals and young children through pediatric care clinics.

"These places are now equipped with answers and ways to discuss why reading early and often is important," says Tank. "The face-to-face conversations with parents about reading early and often are the most effective ways to increase reading activity."

And, just a casual walk around Muskegon is likely to spark those conversations and remind parents and residents of the goal, as large banners are being displayed in public places all over the community, says the ISD's Fortino. That includes county buildings, a local theater, WIC offices, health care facilities--and they're moved to new locations all the time.

What's next for Read Early, Read Often in Muskegon County? Residents can expect a yard sign campaign to pop up across town in the spring, as well as lots of new "book houses," said Tank. The little street-side lending libraries have been built by schools, parents, even Boy Scout troops, and are stocked through book donations.

"I'm really excited to see all the new book houses spring up all over the place," she says.

And, they've applied to AmeriCorps for a grant-funded position, so an AmeriCorps member might be coming to the community to work on the project and move its goals forward, if the application is approved. But in the meantime, Muskegon County will be moving itself forward. Fortino says there is no set end date for the program.

"When every one of our kids is proficient (in reading), that's when we've achieved this dream," she says. "Until then, we're going to keep that message going. That's why Thrive's leadership is so important -- it can't be just a few educators getting out the message, it has to be a community-wide thing."

This article originally published in Mid-Michigan Second Wave and Northwest Michigan's Second Wave, through a partnership with the Michigan Public Schools Partnership.
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