CEDAR RAPIDS — Kids in Cedar Rapids will get a helping hand from country music legend Dolly Parton and the Cedar Rapids Public Library Foundation directors, who are partnering to promote early childhood literacy by providing dozens of free books to children before they reach kindergarten.
Each enrolled child will receive a book in the mail each month from birth through age 5 through Parton’s Imagination Library, of which the Cedar Rapids library foundation is now an affiliate, the foundation announced Wednesday. By the time he or she starts school, a local child will have a library of 60 books starting with “The Little Engine That Could” and ending with “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!”
“The whole goal is to get kids ready for kindergarten,” said Charity Tyler, executive director of the library foundation. “When you start early, it creates a reading culture that persists from year to year.”
The goal is to enroll 80 percent, or 7,300 of the 9,100 eligible children, by year four, which would require an annual fundraising commitment of $185,000, she said.
The program is available to children of all income levels, and more than 1,500 children — including many who enrolled during a quiet rollout — were already signed up by Wednesday.
Imagination Library covers the administrative costs of the program, book selection and the mailings. Local chapters must pay for the books and postage, which amounts to $25 per child per year.
Imagination Library launched in 1995 through the Dollywood Foundation near Parton’s home in Tennessee. It was so successful that it was rolled out nationally in 2000, according to the Cedar Rapids library, and now more than a million books a month are mailed around the globe.
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The book list — compiled by the Blue Ribbon Selection Committee and Penguin Random House publishing — has a few additions and subtractions each year but is largely consistent. At least two books a year are bilingual and each mailing is tailored to the child’s age.
Books include tips for parents on how to most effectively read with their children.
Affiliates have reported positive results when comparing enrollees with unenrolled peers when it comes to school readiness and grade-level reading, Tyler said.
“The Imagination Library fills the birth-to-preschool gap that directly supports our community’s efforts to get every child ready to read and ready for school,” Tyler said.
In Cedar Rapids, one in four students does not read proficiently by third grade. In low-income households, that increases to one in three, and 45 percent of children entering kindergarten were not ready, according to library information and statistics from the 2016-17 school year.
Library officials hope to use data from enrollees to offer targeted library programming, such as neighborhood story times, Tyler said.
“The big plan as we get into summer is this will go with us everywhere we go,” said Amber Mussman, the community relations manager for the library.
Literacy advocates locally said they see the program as a positive.
“Getting books into the hands of kids and their families is so important for children’s development and their learning lifelong,” said Debbie Ackerman, RED Ahead program manager for Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, or HACAP. “I am so excited it is in Cedar Rapids now.”
She said Jones and Cedar counties also are Imagination Library affiliates.
Ackerman said her 2-year-old, Colin, just received his first Imagination Library book. He was excited because it was a train book, and Mom and son sat down to read it right away.
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Susan Van Woert, an alternative kindergarten through fifth grade curriculum facilitator for the Cedar Rapids school district, called it a “wonderful program” and emphasized the importance of parent engagement.
The stronger a child’s literacy the better the vocabulary, syntax, ability to construct sentences and general comprehension in school. But it’s not always intuitive how to read effectively to a child, she said.
“Some children enter school without the understanding of ordinary terms many children learned on the laps of their parents or grandparents,” she said. “So we have work to do. When a book arrives and parents can take time to read the words in the book and help develop the vocabulary, it soaks in the brain.”
Several area groups — Wells Fargo, Mercy Medical Center, Alliant Energy Foundation, Rockwell Collins, Greater Cedar Rapids Foundation and The Gazette — provided funds to help launch the program. Several other companies including Diamond V, McGrath Family of Dealerships, Altorfer Inc., the Accel Group, Cedar Rapids ILLMC (FUSE), Theisen’s Home Farm & Auto and the Bloomhall Family are supporting sponsors.
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— Children must be residents of Cedar Rapids and younger than 5.
— Parents or guardians can fill out a registration form and return it to the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Forms can be found at the downtown library, 450 Fifth Ave, SE, and the Ladd Library, 3750 Williams Blvd. SW, and at CRLibrary.org/Imagination-Library.
— The first book should arrive between eight to 10 weeks after registration.
— Parents or caregivers are asked to read to their child and call the library with any address updates.