New United Way-funded initiative aims to help prepare kids for kindergarten

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By EDWARD HUSAR 
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

The book project being undertaken by Adams School third-graders was inspired by the new “Ready, Set, Grow” initiative rolled out in November by the United Way of Adams County and the Regional Office of Education.
This educational initiative aims to help prepare preschool children for kindergarten by encouraging adults to read and talk to babies and toddlers at an early age.
Studies show many children — particularly those from low-income backgrounds — lag behind in basic literacy skills upon entering kindergarten because they don’t get enough language interaction at home while growing up.
“Ready, Set, Grow” strives to change that by putting more books into the hands of parents and by encouraging them to read and talk to their children to build crucial language and vocabulary skills.
“From the minute they’re born, it’s time to be talking with them,” said Debbie Niederhauser, regional superintendent of schools for Adams and Pike counties.
Niederhauser’s Regional Office of Education took the lead in initiating the “Ready, Set, Grow” program as part of an education leadership effort funded by the United Way.
“Our mission is to help the little ones — the zero to 5 population — so when they walk through the door for the very first time as a kindergartner, the achievement gap will be lessened and they’ll be better prepared for school,” Niederhauser said.
A growing number of organizations and individuals are getting involved in the campaign to help prepare preschoolers for school.
For example, the Adams County Health Department started a program last year that involves collecting and distributing used children’s books for preschoolers. The books are then placed on shelves and made available for free to families with young children who come to the Health Department for services.
“We wanted every kid who came in for services to the Health Department to have an opportunity to bring a book home with them every time they visited us,” said Jerrod Welch, the Health Department’s administrator, who launched the book-giveaway last July after hearing about a similar venture in another county.
Since July, he said, more than 3,000 books have been given to children. Welch said his goal is to give out at least 10,000 by the end of 2014.
The Health Department is doing other things to encourage its adult patrons to read to children at an early age. According to Welch, the agency is using some United Way and Quincy Foundation of the Quincy Area funding to buy new children’s books that nurses, in turn, pass along while visiting the parents of newborns through age 2. The nurses also are being trained to tell parents about the importance to talking to babies to develop language and vocabulary skills.
In addition, community volunteers have started taking turns reading to children in the Health Department’s lobby while families wait for appointments.
The Quincy Public Library, a longtime advocate for early literacy efforts, also is launching some new initiatives tied in with the “Ready, Set, Grow” program.
Nancy Dolan, executive director, said the library has been expanding its story-telling activities. It also has produced a variety of handouts giving parents ideas for building reading skills in children.
The library also developed a series of bookmarks with age-appropriate tips for reading to youngsters — from babies to age 4.
“We’re trying to normalize the idea that everyone needs to read and everyone needs to talk to their baby,” Dolan said. “It’s never too early to start.”
The library is also plans to offer a “Little Read” program next September in connection with its annual “Big Read,” which encourages adults to read classic books. The Little Read will put some classic children’s books into the hands of preschoolers and students in early grades.
Blessing Hospital also is getting on board with “Ready, Set, Grow.” Nurses in the hospital’s Blessing Beginnings program have begun talking to new mothers about the importance of connecting to their babies through talk. They are even handing out boxes of baby wipes bearing a “Let’s Talk” decal reminding them to talk to their babies — even while changing their diapers.

“So many parents don’t realize how important it is to talk to the child,” Dolan said.

“We’re trying to get every mother and father to realize that they can change the future of their child just by talking with them. It’s really that simple.”

— ehusar@whig.com/221-3378