Increasing number of low-income parents read to their kids

Head Start, other outreach programs stress importance

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Thirty times per year, Vancouver resident Doug Lehrman dresses up as Curious George’s best friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat, and reads a storybook aloud to groups of youngsters in subsidized preschool programs around Southwest Washington.

The executive director of Vancouver-based Educational Opportunities for Children & Families, which administers the preschool programs, uses the story times as a way to stir up enthusiasm about reading and to poll the pupils in Head Start, Early Head Start and the state’s Early Childhood Education Assistance Program about their family’s reading habits.

“I glean that most of them have books at home, and about 80 percent have parents who read to them,” Lehrman said. “I glean from parents that many of them did not do that before, but they learned from Head Start the importance of reading to their children.”

Nationwide, the percentage of families in poverty who read to their toddlers on a daily basis has climbed from nearly 37 percent to about 45 percent during the past 10 years, while the rate for parents above the poverty line remained stagnant at more than 56 percent, according to a report released Thursday by the Census Bureau. The report, “A Child’s Day: Selected Indicators of Child Well-Being,” reflected survey results from 2009. Combined, 53 percent of parents read to children ages 1-2 every day.

“We are pleased to hear there’s a study showing (our work) may be paying off, and the lower income population might be reading more,” Lehrman said.

The improvement has likely stemmed from a concerted effort across the nation, including Clark County, to spread awareness about the importance of reading to children, beginning when they’re infants.

“Often we see parents’ attitudes about reading mimicked in children,” said Kurt Reeser, program coordinator for Washington Reading Corps in Clark, Cowlitz, Klickitat and Skamania counties. “Parents play a critical role in literacy acquisition in that they can support and model literacy at home.”

The national nonprofit Children’s Reading Foundation in Kennewick encourages parents to read to their children at least 20 minutes per day.

Lack of reading proficiency by the third grade has been linked with an increased likelihood of dropping out of school and committing crimes later in life, according to the foundation.

Head Start, a federally funded subsidized preschool program for families in poverty (income less than $22,350 for a family of four), has long focused on involving parents in the education of their children by encouraging parents to read to kids at home and to be active in their children’s preschool classrooms.

Ridgefield resident Surina Nash said she never read to her son until he began Head Start in Orchards at age 2. His teacher sparked his interest in books and made Nash aware of how reinforcing reading at home would help her son succeed later in life.

“My parents never read to me,” Nash said. “I didn’t know children were paying attention at that young of an age. I thought it was only important when they started school.”

Nash said her son, now 9, scores high in reading at school.

“My nieces and nephews are like, ‘How does he know all those words?’” Nash said. “I didn’t know how impactful (early reading) would be.”

The push for early reading gained significant momentum and publicity with the Charlottesville Education Summit in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush and state governors met to establish education goals for the nation. One of the goals aimed at increasing the graduation rate was to make sure all third-graders were proficient in reading.

The effort intensified recently with President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top Fund, a competitive grant program for schools. The federal government earmarked about $500 million of that toward early childhood literacy between infancy and age 5.

“The national climate is very strong toward early literacy,” said Dena Lodahl, international outreach coordinator at Children’s Reading Foundation.

However, as part of measures to cut the national deficit, Congress recently stopped $25 million in funding for the nonprofit Reading Is Fundamental program, which helped to buy books for about 4 million children in poverty. Educational Opportunities for Children & Families in Vancouver, a recipient of those funds, has lost about $7,000 as a result, Lehrman said.

The local agency plans to solicit private donations this year to buy books to give to its preschool pupils.

Another local effort to encourage early reading is the Rotary Club of Vancouver’s Reading Buddy program. About 400 Rotarians participate in that program in which volunteers read to children in Vancouver schools.

The Fort Vancouver Regional Library District last month debuted an Early Learning Center at the new Vancouver Community Library on C Street. The library district holds story times at local library branches and elementary schools. The story times are educational for both children and their parents because organizers stress the importance of reading at home, pointing out letters and enhancing children’s vocabulary, said Johanna Hyatt, the library district’s early childhood specialist.

The library district also gives out about 3,000 “Hello Baby” book bags to new parents. The bags include cardboard picture books for infants, a free publication from Washington State Library called “Read To Your Baby,” and other items.

“There is so much more talk about reading to your children at an early age just in the general public,” Hyatt said. “The president talks about it. Pediatricians talk about it, and libraries have so many programs to encourage it. People want better things for their children, and they’ve heard enough information that they want their children to get as many literacy skills as they can.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.