.Nameplate February 2013 Issue
My View                                                 Pages 16-17

 

Investing in Early Literacy  

 

BY JEAN M. FRANCO

It’s a wonder that every school district in the nation isn’t rushing to invest in early literacy. Because of constrained budgets, emphasis is placed on the more immediate needs relating to standardized testing in the designated grades, instead of readying younger children for the start of formal schooling.

While the needs of K-12 students may seem more pressing, we’ve known for a long time — at least since the HighScope Perry Preschool Study that began in the 1960s — that $1 invested in high-quality early childhood education programs resulted in a return of $7 in preventative costs associated with dropping out, truancy, incarceration and teen pregnancy. This study clearly links the early intervention of education with the success of young people and the nation’s economic health.

As superintendent in Lowell, Mass., an urban district with a student population of more than 13,000, I have seen comprehensive early childhood education act as an equalizer in helping with the national goal for all children to be literate by grade 3. Supporting formal education at a young age in a school district grants children a solid foundation in the necessary building blocks for performing well in school and in life. Early childhood education levels the playing field for young children in disadvantaged settings by developing oral language, reading readiness and the ability to communicate in academic ways.

Access to Books
In Lowell, where about 75 percent of our students’ families qualify as low income, we partner with Raising A Reader Massachusetts to reduce costs of early childhood programming without compromising quality. Raising A Reader allows us to bring a high-quality, cost-effective national program to our community. We build the language and literacy skills we know children need to be successful in school and beyond and meaningfully involve their families in the process.

Raising A Reader facilitates our district’s capacity to rotate children’s books into households on a weekly basis. The partnership helps us celebrate literature with each participating family and trains parents to effectively share books with their young children. The school district depends on the book sharing as an important component of building literacy.

More than 20 independent research studies have shown the value of this model. In particular, “Early Childhood Literacy: The National Early Literacy Panel and Beyond” study by Timothy Shanahan and Christopher Lonigan shares extensive research that indicates the volume of books entering the home makes a difference in a young child’s education.

Parental Engagement
Our program in Lowell reaches about 160 children ages 3 and 4 in four elementary schools. Raising A Reader serves another 253 children in 19 public preschool classrooms across Massachusetts and runs programs in more than 2,500 locations nationwide. Over the last two years, Lowell educators have been able to cater to the needs of our urban community and convey the value of reading to the many parents who speak English as their second language.

Our district’s Family Literacy Program brings parents and children together where they can learn to read in a family-focused atmosphere. Television commercials on local stations in both English and Spanish have promoted the program by announcing the dates and locations of the training sessions in various neighborhoods. Since its implementation, I’ve seen an increase in parent participation in our early education efforts and wider usage of the public library by families.

Regular participation in these activities results in substantial benefits — healthy cognitive development in children, increased early literacy skills and family engagement in schooling, all contributors to later life success. Such returns from investing in early childhood education are things we cannot and should not ignore any longer.

Jean Franco is superintendent of the Lowell Public Schools in Lowell, Mass. E-mail: jfranco@lowell.k12.ma.us

 

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