Glenwood program raises readers one book at a time
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Educators in area school districts are starting to collect hard data to help prove the driving theory behind a popular program begun six years ago to put books in the hands of preschool students from Parachute to Aspen.
For three years now, the Garfield County School District Re-2 has been tracking incoming kindergarten students who have participated in the Roaring Fork Valley Early Learning Fund’s Raising a Reader program. The idea is to compare the “reading readiness” of Raising a Reader children to their peers who have not been exposed to the program.
Raising A Reader (RaR) is an early childhood preliteracy program designed to boost kindergarten readiness and, ultimately, later success in school.
Every fall, RaR provides participating preschool classrooms with red “Read to Me” book bags filled with age-appropriate books, both in English and Spanish, that encourage daily family reading time. Students take a bag home for one week, then trade it out for a new bag the next week.
“The trend we are seeing is that the kids who participate in Raising a Reader are more ready to learn how to read and write when they enter kindergarten,” said Re-2 Director of Assessment and Special Programs Julie Knowles.
“That early exposure to books and reading is so incredibly important, and we’re seeing that it is a powerful tool to close achievement gaps, even by age 5,” she said.
All incoming kindergarten students at Re-2 schools in Rifle, Silt and New Castle are given a benchmark assessment to gauge their initial fluency in letter identification and sounds.
Knowles said the results help determine which students are at risk and in need of intensive intervention, those who are moderately at risk and need some intervention, and those who are at benchmark levels for kindergarten students.
Based on testing of 363 incoming kindergarten students in Re-2 last fall, only 26 percent of RaR children required intensive intervention, while 41 percent of children who had not been exposed to RaR needed that degree of intervention, according to data provided by Knowles.
A slightly higher percentage of RaR students were also at the benchmark level (25 percent), compared to non-RaR students (23 percent), she said.
“We saw a similar pattern with our testing last year,” she said. “It is important to note that about 60 percent of the students who participated in (RaR) were already identified as being at risk for school failure or having a disability.”
Following Re-2’s lead, and at the urging of the Early Learning Fund, three other area school districts – Aspen, Roaring Fork Re-1 (Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt) and Garfield County District 16 (Parachute) – also began tracking RaR students this school year.
Data is not yet available, since this is the first year of the tracking. But, as an early childhood learning specialist herself, Re-1 Preschool Coordinator Thelma Zabel said it makes sense that the sooner children are exposed to books and reading time, the better they’ll do when they enter school.
“The folks at Raising a Reader have really been encouraging us to do the tracking,” Zabel said. “It is a great example that proves how reading at home with your young children is so important.”
Ideally, RaR families, including parents, older siblings and extended family members, read aloud to their preschool children more than six times a week. The program’s own statistics show that reading sessions start at 19 minutes in the fall and increase to 28 minutes by the end of the school year.
“Multiply that over the course of the school year, and it’s huge,” Zabel said. “And these are families that are generally considered to be at risk for not developing their children’s vocabulary at an early age.”
Rebecca Ruland is director of District 16’s Grand Valley Center for Family Learning, and also serves on the Raising a Reader board.
She remembers when RaR founder Jayne Poss attended a meeting of early childhood providers to make a pitch for the program.
“People embraced it right away,” Ruland said. “It’s hard to argue with providing high-quality books in two languages that come back every week, and require parents to sit with their kids and read.”
Younger children also learn to associate reading time with quality parent time.
“Kids see pretty quickly that this is a connection to mom and dad’s lap,” Ruland said. “We even see skills with kids as young and 1 1/2 to 2 years old who know how to hold a book, even if it might be upside down.
“Books are a great avenue to develop those early skills, and to be able to retell a story using their young vocabularies,” she said. “There are a whole bunch of skills that come before they can actually decode words.”
Poss founded the local Raising A Reader program in 2004 thanks to financial support from Jackie and Mike Bezos of the Bezos Family Foundation.
That first year, the program reached 370 children in 26 preschool classrooms. It has now grown to some 1,500 children in 92 classrooms in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties.
“Our mission has stayed its course and is bridging the achievement gap between early childhood and primary school by fulfilling the need for quality, results-based early childhood literacy intervention,” said Poss, who was director of the Early Learning Fund until this year and still serves as president of the board.
Rick Blauvelt is now the executive director for the program. One reason the school districts were asked to track RaR students is so they can share those statistics and help show the program’s donors that it does work, he said.
Unlike programs elsewhere, the Early Learning Fund raises money to bring RaR into local preschools, rather than leaving the fundraising up to the preschool programs themselves, he said.
“We believe Raising A Reader is effective because it taps the natural energy and curiosity of the child,” Blauvelt said. “Teachers provide the initial excitement about books and reading, but it is the child’s persistence that makes it work. Families soon discover the joy of bonding at story time, and children establish literacy patterns that last a lifetime.”
Another aspect of the program attempts to link children and families with their local public libraries through the Blue Book Bag project. In the spring, each RaR class visits their local library and children receive a blue library book bag to use when they visit the library. They also receive what often is their very first library card.
It’s a habit that elementary schools have modeled as students get older.
“All of our students have a public library card, and we have weekly trips to the library,” Glenwood Springs Elementary School Principal Sonya Hemmen said. “For the preschool kids, it’s so handy to have those books in a bag and ready to go home with them. Any time you can introduce print materials, not just to the child, but to the household, it’s a great early literacy tool.”
Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale was one of the first schools to pilot the RaR program. And, up until this school year when it became too expensive to continue, CRES even offered RaR to its kindergarten students.
“I think the thing we notice is how much more comfortable parents are in reading to their children,” CRES Principal Karen Olson said of the program. “It’s that whole home/school connection that we talk about.”
Although the tracking hasn’t been in place long enough, and it would be hard to make a direct correlation, there is some evidence that early childhood literacy programs like RaR are paying dividends further down the road.
Both the Re-1 and Re-2 school districts saw a significant rise in Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) reading scores for third-grade students last school year – a group of students who would have been among the first to be in the Raising a Reader program six years ago.
Re-1’s third-grade students, in particular, made significant gains over the previous year on CSAP reading tests with a 14 percent increase in students scoring proficient or advanced, 72 percent in 2008-09, compared to 58 percent in 2007-08.
Gains were made for both Anglo third-grade students, more than 90 percent of whom scored proficient or advanced – including 100 percent of the Anglo students at CRES – and Latino students, who for the first time began to approach 50 percent proficient/advanced.
Likewise, Re-2 saw an overall 7 percent growth in third grade reading scores as measured by the CSAP tests last school year.
“I’m not sure we could make a single, direct link (between RaR and the higher CSAP scores),” Olson said.
“So much went into getting those kids ready for CSAPs, that it’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” she said of literacy programs through the first three years of elementary school before students begin to take the CSAP tests.
“We’ve done so many different things with kids when it comes to reading than had historically been done before, but it all adds up,” Olson said.
Re-2’s Knowles agreed that the kindergarten preparedness assessment is just the beginning of a responsive intervention effort that continues through the early primary years.
“The whole philosophy is to screen kids early, to intervene early when necessary, and to change long-term outcomes,” she said. “But we are seeing some evidence now that that gap is gone, if not surpassed, by the time some of these kids get to kindergarten.”
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