I slide the hand-crafted baby shower invitation out of its crisp envelope. A bookplate reading “for the library of Baby Girl Miller” falls out together with a card asking guests to “Please bring a book instead of a card. Whether it’s Cat in the Hat or Winnie the Pooh, you can sign the book with a note from you.” When this baby is born, she will have a well-stocked library waiting for her. It will be filled with books carefully selected for her by a community of family and friends who envision her, years from now, dragging a well-worn version of the book they are wrapping in pink and white paper. She will ask her parents to read her favorite over and over, finally memorizing the words so she can “read” them to herself. When she heads off to kindergarten five years from now, she will do so with the knowledge that letters form words and words form sentences, and sentences make stories, which is where magic happens.
Thanks to those books, this girl will develop advanced literacy skills and an enhanced vocabulary as a toddler, which will make her ready to learn and vastly increase the likelihood of school success before she spends even one day in the classroom. By reading to her regularly, Baby Girl Miller’s parents will create a rich language environment for her. By filling her bookshelves, they will instill a love of reading in her at an early age, which is a gift that will benefit her into adulthood. Young children who discover the joy of reading early are better prepared when they enter school, more likely to graduate, and more employable as adults. Simply put, giving a child a book gives her a brighter future.
Ferst Readers has been partnering with communities to give children brighter futures since 1999. Seeing the issue of low-income children starting school without basic pre-reading skills as a preventable problem with far-reaching implications throughout a child’s life, the Ferst Readers set out to improve childhood literacy one book at a time.
According to a 2005 report, RI Kids Count, “Young children who are read to regularly by their parents develop better literacy skills, are better readers when they reach elementary school and are more likely to succeed academically.” Many parents want to read to their children but don’t because they cannot access quality, age-appropriate books in their homes. By eliminating this barrier, more children can discover a love of reading, start school better prepared to learn and narrow the achievement gap that occurs because of this literacy deficit. For the past 15 years, Ferst Readers has worked to bring down that barrier by partnering with over 800 volunteers in communities across Georgia to get books into homes and engage families in reading.
The numbers are staggering, and the window of opportunity is brief. Among low-income families, 61% do not have one single book that is appropriate for children in their homes. These children do not get read to and, as a result, hear 32 million fewer words from birth to age four than their peers who grow up in professional homes filled with books. They begin school without being reading-ready, which is why 71% of Georgia 4th graders read below grade level. Not reading on grade level by 4th grade increases the likelihood by three to four times that a student will drop out of school, continuing the cycle of diminished success as a result of limited education. By addressing the starting point of this cycle – a lack of age-appropriate books in children’s homes – communities can increase the number of students who are kindergarten ready, who read on grade level by 4th grade, and who graduate from high school.
The solution is rather simple. If a key determinant of early literacy is having books, then as a community, we should ensure that all children have books. Ferst Readers facilitates this solution by working with local Community Action Teams comprised of volunteers and sponsors to serve the children in their area. For $42 a year, a child can be registered in the program and receive a book - carefully selected by a committee of education, child development, and early childhood literacy experts - every month up through his 5th birthday. If participants do nothing more than page through the books when they arrive in their mailboxes, the exposure alone increases their chances of improved literacy skills. If their parents read the books to them and review the tips included in the parent resource newsletter that is mailed each month with the book, the results are even stronger. Because parent engagement is key to early learning success, the Ferst Readers program is designed to support the entire family in their journey toward literacy.
The best part of that journey is watching children and parents stream into the local library for storytime. They know the date and time because it’s listed in their resource newsletter, which arrives each month with their children’s new book. Smiles, laughter, and small hands clutching the book they will check out indicate that the Ferst Readers’ model is working. There are other indicators as well. The former Morgan County Superintendent of Schools states, “Since collaborating with Ferst Readers, we have seen scores on our kindergarten readiness test increase from 46% to over 90% ready.” Kindergarten and first-grade teachers easily identify the students who have received Ferst Readers books. They are better prepared to learn, have a better vocabulary, are better focused, have better attention spans, and enjoy school more. Most importantly, by entering school with these basic early literacy skills, these children are experiencing higher achievement as they progress. Among the first group of children enrolled in Ferst Readers are high school seniors in Morgan County. As 8th graders, their CRCT scores showed that over 99% of them met or exceeded state standards, tying them for third in the state.
After 20 years and over 8 million books delivered in over 120 participating communities in nine states, Ferst Readers knows what makes this program successful. School achievement rises when Community Action Teams register at least 50% of children in their county in the Ferst program. Local programs that have been operating for five years or longer are more successful in achieving that registration rate because of the strong volunteer and sponsorship network. To continue addressing early literacy, one book at a time, the Ferst Readers must focus on three key areas: increasing the number of counties where Community Action Teams operate, supporting the Community Action Teams in their efforts to register a minimum of 50% of the children younger than five in their counties and create statewide awareness and support for Ferst Readers so that programs operate long enough to provide a real and lasting impact.
Just as Ferst Readers is addressing the school readiness gap one book at a time, so too is it addressing its own needs one dollar at a time. Your support of Ferst Readers supports our Community Action Teams in several important ways. First, your gift subsidizes the cost of books for each participant, increasing the number of children each CAT can register with locally-raised funds. Community Action Teams receive program and fundraising support that includes the production of individualized newsletters for each county, distributing the books each month, and sharing best practices for registering children and securing sponsors. This help is especially important for Community Action Teams that are just starting out. By supporting capacity building on the local level, your gift helps create the kind of awareness, commitment, and ownership that leads to sustainability, an important factor in our program’s success. To better engage the whole family in reading-readiness activities, Ferst Readers is working on enhancing the supporting activities, videos, and information that families access digitally, making the program more seamless and user-friendly. Finally, donors to the Ferst Readers support innovative programming like the work being done in the daycare/family care centers in Atlanta’s Promise Neighborhood. To address needs throughout the state, Ferst Readers must be able to create and support individualized programs so that all children can receive the gift of literacy.
Many children in Georgia are not as lucky as Baby Girl Miller. They do not have bookshelves filled with stories selected just for them. They do not have parents who dream of sitting with their toddler on their lap, reading the same, worn copy of Goodnight Moon again. They have not been given the gift of early literacy, kindergarten readiness, on-level reading by 4th grade, and academic success leading to high school graduation and a world of opportunities beyond. Our participants, however, are luckier than those who grow up elsewhere because what they do have is Ferst Readers. With over 800 volunteers, over 120 participating communities, local and statewide sponsors, and the many individual supporters who believe that the achievement gap in our schools can be addressed one book at a time, stand in for those children. They lovingly select and send books, support parents in making reading an important part of their children’s lives, raise awareness about the importance of early literacy, and send children off to school who are ready and eager to learn. They give these children the gift of literacy…the gift of a brighter future.