Free book program is five years old
ORONOCO — Every month for the last four years, five-year-old Justine Dickie of Oronoco has received a free children's book in the mail courtesy of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
That early childhood program, combined with her own parents' enthusiasm for reading, not only propelled the little girl into an imaginary world of little trains that could and wily pigs outsmarting foxes. It also stimulated an appetite for reading that is paying dividends today.
Now age five, Justine reads on her own, and a teacher in Dickie's pre-kindergarten program recently told her mother, Stephanie Dickie, that her daughter reads at a third-grade level.
"Right around her (fifth) birthday, it seems she took off," said Stephanie about her daughter's reading ability. Her three-year-old daughter, Kelsey, also is enrolled in the program.
That program, first launched by the United Way of Olmsted County in 2006, is now approaching a key benchmark, its fifth-year anniversary. The first group of children to enroll in Imagination Library are now graduating and heading into kindergarten. And United Way officials are looking to expand the number of families served by the program to 7,500 children by 2015, from the 6,000 it serves today.
Bonnie Schultz, an official with Olmsted County United Way, said the program fits with the group's larger focus of enhancing literacy and preparing children for school. One long-range goal of the group is to have 75 percent of children meet or exceed reading assessment guidelines by the time they enroll in kindergarten.
The program is open to any child between the age of one month and 5 years who is a resident of Olmsted County. Perhaps the best thing about the program is that it is free, although people are free to make donations.
Although the United Way hasn't studied the impact of the reading program on Olmsted County children, studies conducted in other areas of the country suggest it is making difference.
In Tennessee, where the library was launched (and Parton's home state), one study showed that 48 percent of kindergarten teachers and 64 percent of pre-kindergarten teachers rated library participants as performing "better than expected." That compared to only 10 percent of kindergarten teachers and 11 percent of pre-kindergarten teachers who said that non-participants performed "better than expected" or "much better than expected."
Dickie says she and her husband began to introduce their children to books at an early age. As early as six months old, she would put books in front of Justine, who often used them as objects to throw around. Soon, though, she'd be looking at the front page, and before long she was paging through the books. By age three, she could memorize a book.
Waiting for a book to arrive in the mail, which Justine referred as her "prize," also built up a sense of anticipation and excitement.
Stephanie said the books from the library are a combination of classics, award-winning books and popular children's tales. Only on a couple of occasions did she choose not to use the books, because of the use of language like "stupid" or "dumb" that they don't allow in the house.
"It's a great program for parents," Stephanie said. "We just enjoy sitting together and reading."