When the staff at Henderson District Public Libraries in Henderson, Nevada, reviewed their literacy education efforts in 2006, they realized that they needed a comprehensive program to stimulate community involvement in the early literacy development of children.
"I think we’ve found that in our community that it’s across all lines. Everyone needs a little assistance helping their children to learn how to read," said Tom Fay, executive director of Henderson Libraries. "We could really start taking care of a lot of our adult literacy issues by just making sure we’re … getting them to read by the time that they’re six years old."
To shape the program, Library Outreach Manager Evelyn Walkowicz conducted evidence-based research on early literacy to find out what really works. In addition, she contacted families in the community.
"I discovered that a lot of them just had never thought to visit a public library. It wasn’t a part of their experience as a child, and therefore they weren’t bringing their children. So there was a realization that there was a large pool of people out there that could really benefit from the services that we provide," she said.
In response, Henderson Libraries Outreach Department developed the Bright Beginnings initiative to bring books, classes, and training to the people.
In May 2007, the libraries received a one-year, $100,000 IMLS Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) "Innovation Grant" from the Nevada State Library and Archives for Bright Beginnings.
A Multipronged Approach
Bright Beginnings’ purpose was to support early literacy development for children up to age eight through enriched story time experiences, deposit book collections, child care provider training, a community awareness campaign, and a Web site.
The libraries purchased more than 4,500 books, both high-quality hardback children’s books and parenting books, to create collections that were sprinkled throughout the community in places where people gather. They created nine permanent collections and two summer collections at a Head Start, Boys and Girls Clubs, Parks and Recreation Centers, a social service agency, a women’s shelter, a parenting support organization, a home for teen moms, and an elementary school.
Another project component was parent-child workshops and enriched story times. These included Learn and Play classes, which taught preliteracy and early literacy skills to kids six months to two and a half years old and their parents or caregivers. The sessions "include a lot of activities and songs and play and a lot of modeling for the parents on how to take these behaviors home and continue them," said Walkowicz.
The outreach staff also offered Ready for School classes for children three-to-five years old and their parents or caregivers, to prepare kids to be successful in kindergarten.
In both sets of classes, parents received packets of activities and information to take home.
During the grant period, the libraries conducted 11 parent-child sessions, each consisting of 10 classes. A total of 148 parents and children attended.
Bright Beginnings also provided early literacy training for 20 Henderson Libraries Youth Services staff. These training workshops featured topics such as "Baby Signing" and "Celebrating Learning with Music."
Library staff trained child care providers and other adults who work with children. Four workshops were given, all of which were approved by the Nevada Registry, a statewide system of career development for early care and education. Three hundred people participated in the workshops, which included "Early Literacy Strategies and Activities," "Baby Signing," and "Celebrating Learning with Music."
The libraries launched a Bright Beginnings Web site in 2008 and also spread community awareness by purchasing six LCD/DVD screens for partner locations, so they could run early literacy and parenting DVDs in their waiting areas.
Reaching a New Audience
The project made a significant community impact during its first year. "The thing that has stood out most is that we have very definitely gotten books into the hands of children and families that normally would not use them," said Walkowicz.
The Head Start location was the most successful. It had the largest deposit collection, with 600 books, of which more than 100 were checked out each week.
Walkowicz said the Head Start families are not traditional library users. "Most of them don’t have library cards; even when we try to recruit them, we can’t always convince them to get a library card.… But they do want access to these books."
The children were excited to have a mini-library at their Head Start. On the first day the books were available, one child and his mom waited for an hour before the doors opened.
"When we went to the opening of that collection, just seeing one of the kids actually run up, grab a couple of books and ask his mom, ‘Is this really our library? Are these books that we can read?’ That says it right there," said Fay.
Additionally, nearly 300 children used the summer book collections at Kid Zone locations. A survey at the end of fiscal year 2008 showed that all of the deposit collection sites were pleased with the quality of the books and satisfied with collection usage.
The parent-child program sessions also had a measurable impact. Fifty percent of the children ages three-to-five who participated in a series of 10 Ready for School classes improved their assessment scores by two points. Eighty percent of parent/child groups that attended a series of 10 Learn and Play classes showed at least a one-step improvement in three of the five behaviors observed.
During interviews after the workshops, 100 percent of library staff said they benefited from the training, and 90 percent had learned at least two new ways to incorporate early literacy into their story time programs.
Ninety-eight percent of child care providers found the training useful, and 100 percent who attended the Early Literacy Strategies and Activities class planned on using the book list they received.
The LCD/DVD screens and parenting DVDs placed at partner locations had mixed results. The technology proved to be labor intensive and required extra staff time.
Challenge of Turnover
Because the libraries did a lot of research, planning, and communicating with partners before the grant began, there were no surprises during the grant period.
One challenge, however, was staff turnover at partner organizations.
"We would start out with an agreement with somebody and then three months later someone else would be in the location and we’d have to reestablish a relationship," explained Walkowicz. "To mitigate some of that, we were very careful to have letters of agreement, MOUs in place with all of our partner organizations."
An Expanding Program
The program now has book materials in more than 33 locations across the city. United Way Southern Nevada, Success by 6, has provided funds to support parts of the program through 2011.
Classes at one recreation center always have a waiting list, and training workshops for child care providers fill up immediately.
Henderson Libraries has also received another LSTA grant, through the Nevada State Library and Archives, for a new program called Bright Spots, which builds on the original initiative and brings the programming into the library branches.
"The Bright Spots locations will be baby safe, toddler safe, cords will be tucked away, plugs will be covered up, and they will be small comfortable areas where a parent can sit and read with their child," said Walkowicz.
Parents will receive early literacy materials to bring home.
Fay noted, "I want to see our focus remain on pre-K literacy not only in the community through outreach, but also occurring in our libraries for all the rest of our patrons who are coming in to see us every day."