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Books from Birth: Raising Readers in the District, by DC Council member Charles Allen

March 16, 2015

We’d like to extend a warm welcome to our special guest blogger: Councilmember Charles Allen, Ward 6.  Charles has been working in Ward 6 neighborhoods for more than a decade, and is a current resident – make sure to stop and say hi if you see him near his 15th & D St. NE home!  A tireless supporter of school reform, small businesses, and improving the community, Charles has also been a champion for CHAW and the arts in our community – as well as all the great benefits of having a more vibrant, creative neighborhood through the arts.  On the blog docket today, Charles discusses a new educational initiative that fits our CHAWsome worldview: that every child needs a complete education, which should include ways to access creativity and imagination, and that books are key to opening the mind to the new ideas that are essential to achieving that goal.  With that, here’s Charles:

I appreciate CHAW giving me this opportunity to write about an issue that is very important to me and to our entire city. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how we can help make sure every child in the District gets off to a great start in life and in school. One way we can do that is to sharpen our focus on early literacy, bringing more attention and resources to our youngest learners. Working together with our outstanding DC Public Library system, I want to start with books – getting books into the hands of every child in the District – and using those books to help build families’ connections to our libraries.

Here are the facts: less than half of third graders in the District scored proficient or advanced in reading skills in 2014. But research shows that early literacy development and preparation for learning begin well before elementary school. In fact, studies show that preschoolers who have access to books and adults who read to them will have heard thirty million more words at home by the age of four than children who do not.

This is what educators call the “word gap” and, sadly, it is an accurate predictor of educational achievement throughout the student’s academic career and beyond. But we cannot wait until this “word gap” turns into an “achievement gap” before we start tackling the problem. We must continue to work hard to close the gaps that show up at school, but I want to see the District be more innovative, more proactive, and more engaged to stop those gaps from ever happening in the first place.

The idea of a “word gap” is starting to draw national attention and I want the District to be a leader on this issue. Hillary Clinton recently took this up on behalf of the Too Small To Fail early childhood wellness initiative, describing the word gap as a significant but solvable challenge, one that is essential to the work of reducing inequality:

Coming to school without words is like coming to school without food or adequate health care. It makes it harder for kids to develop their creativity and imagination, to learn, excel, and live up to their full potential. It should spur us to action just like child hunger and child poverty.

I agree with her. It is critical that the District confront the literacy and achievement gap at its starting point, well before it shows up in the classroom. Books are direct building blocks for learning but children must be exposed to them to use them. The Books from Birth Act of 2015 is a key step in that effort:

  • Every child in the District would receive an age-appropriate book each month in the mail until his or her 5th birthday;
  • The DC Public Library would connect the Books From Birth program to the Sing, Talk, & Read initiative, creating a direct link for families to DCPL’s early childhood programming and resources;
  • A selection committee would work collaboratively with DCPL to ensure the book titles represent the District’s diversity in characters, culture, and authors; and
  • Each mailing would include information about educational programs or services, including DCPL’s adult literacy resources, providing a bridge for learning between the home and the local library branch.

According to the most recent data from DC Action For Children, approximately 41,000 young children call the District of Columbia home; more than half of whom are infants and toddlers under age 3. In jurisdictions that have implemented similar book distribution initiatives, such as Tennessee, the annual average cost per child is less than $30.

Increasing young children’s access to age-appropriate books is a widely-recognized, evidence-based approach to improving early literacy outcomes. Families who participate in the Tennessee initiative are more likely to read with children, go to the library, and talk about books; children who receive the books monthly score 11 points higher on reading readiness than non-participants. Reach Out & Read, a nonprofit organization of medical providers that distributes books to families during well-child visits, has demonstrated similar gains, with participating children showing a nearly 10 percent increase in receptive language scores.

On Thursday, March 19, at 2:30pm, the Council’s Committee on Education will hold a hearing on the Books From Birth bill. If you’d like to testify, contact Ade Adenariwo at 202-724-8061 If you’re unable to appear in person, you may also submit written testimony for the official record through Ms. Adenariwo. A copy of the bill is available here, and more information about the hearing can be found here.

With Books From Birth, the District would join a growing list of cities and states across the country focused on closing the word gap and working to ensure every child starts school ready to learn.  Strong core literacy skills aren’t just the foundation of academic success; they’re the essential building blocks children use to become lifelong learners who engage the world around them with confidence and curiosity.  Whether it’s making better health choices as adults or simply offering young people a sense of possibility and hope, putting books into children’s homes and hands is a powerful way to close gaps early that only grow over time.  With Books From Birth, we can help make sure more of our kids have a world of opportunity ahead of them in life and have the tools they need to succeed.