Making the Grade: Reading for School Readiness

Summer Reading is upon us. The Library's branches are bustling with children piling into puppet shows and raising the roof at musical hoedowns, with teens texting and tweeting book reviews, and families dutifully logging reading hours to win prizes.

In many ways, it's a time of celebration.

But for Kansas City, it's also a time of urgent renewal.

In central Kansas City, only 19 percent of children are reading at grade level. Expand that outward into the metro, and the number is still low: 33.8 percent. A community with such low reading ability among children is a community that -- when those children later enter the workforce -- could decline for generations to come.

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The Kansas City Public Library has long understood the impact of reading on the local economy -- a community that nurtures readers grows better future leaders. This philosophy is at the heart of the Building a Community of Readers initiative.

Now the Library is not alone in its desire to get children, from birth through third grade, on the path to meeting grade-level reading standards.

For the first time ever, this year's Summer Reading Program finds the Library joining forces with the Office of the Mayor of Kansas City and Mid-Continent Public Library in ensuring that Kansas City children won't succumb to the summer slide.

Through a new initiative called Turn the Page KC, Kansas City Mayor Sly James is looking at the city's economy through a lens of literacy, and the Library is helping to bring his efforts into focus.

"Kansas City is committed to providing the energy and resources to get every one of our children reading at an appropriate level by the time they get to third grade," Mayor James announced earlier this year.

"This is our most important economic development goal," the mayor said.

To begin to see that goal through, $50,000 was allocated in the Mayor's Office budget this year as seed funding for Turn the Page. Additionally, a donation of 10,000 books was secured from Rosen Publishing of New York. The books were distributed through LINC following a May 7 announcement (covered in the Kansas City Star) that took place in the Children's Library at Central. The Mayor's Office will also recruit five VISTA-AmeriCorp volunteers to work in partnership with local school districts over the next year.

For the mayor, this is just the start of a major initiative to boost the entire city through reading readiness.

"The mayor first and foremost sees this as an economic development issue," says Margaret Hansbrough, Special Assistant for Policy for the Office of Mayor James.

"If we don't have citizens who can thrive in the educational system and workforce, that's a major issue, and third grade is an early determiner. If you can hone in on that early indicator, you can make some long-term systematic change."

To measure that change, the Library and Mid-Continent will provide the Mayor's Office with participation statistics that will be used to determine the impact Summer Reading has on students' classroom performance in four school districts: Kansas City Public Schools, Center, Park Hill and Hickman Mills.

To better collect the data, both library systems are using the same web-based tracking software (Evanced Summer Reader); and both are using the same incentive program, developed by our Library, which rewards children for hours read and teens for book reviews submitted.

Summer Reading isn't just for school-aged children, either.

"Reading books aloud to pre-school children on a regular basis, involving them in exciting activities and events at the Library, and building their home libraries by earning books as prizes for Summer Reading goes a long way toward helping these children be ready to learn when they start kindergarten," says Helma Hawkins, director of Children's Services.

Hawkins says that promoting a love for reading in children long before they enter the classroom ensures they'll be ready to learn when that first bell rings.

So, while Summer Reading may look much the same it has in years past -- with kids grabbing books off the shelves, piling into programs, and moms and dads reading aloud to their children -- there's a lot going on under the surface.

And what's going on under the surface could change the community for years to come.

Watch an intro video for Turn the Page KC:

About the Author

Jason Harper is the web content developer and social media manager at the Kansas City Public Library.
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