More than 1,000 children under school age in Washington County will receive one free book a month under the Imagination Library program started by country music singer Dolly Parton.
Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, community leaders, and a group of students in Head Start of Washington County were at Elgin Station on Thursday morning for a kickoff celebration for Imagination Library, launched by Parton in 1996.
“This program is focused on helping our kids to appreciate literature, read, and become more proficient in reading,” Wilcox said. “This is an opportunity to get a book in the hands of every child in the community.”
Local participation in Imagination Library is a direct result of the Strategic Community Impact Plan (SCIP), a document presented by the Community Foundation of Washington County and the United Way of Washington County to “identify, prioritize, and respond to community needs” using the public and private sectors to improve the quality of life in Washington County, Community Foundation Executive Director Bradley Sell said.
The first goal in the plan is to have all children in the county entering kindergarten to be “fully ready to learn,” based on the Maryland Model for School Readiness, within five years.
“Imagination Library is a proven program around the country and around the world,” Sell said. “It’s been very successful, and studies show that it does help to improve literacy rates.”
The program, initiated in a county in East Tennessee, involved pre-school children receiving age-appropriate books mailed directly to their homes.
Since then, the program has expanded to more than 700,000 children in 1,600 local communities in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, according to the website at http://imaginationlibrary.com.
During the celebration, put on by the Community Foundation of Washington County, Wilcox read “The Little Engine That Could” to Head Start students, all of whom are part of the program.
“The Little Engine” was the welcome book mailed to all of the local youngsters in the Imagination Library program, more than 300 of whom are in Head Start. By December, organizers expect 1,500 county youngsters will be receiving books.
“We’re real pleased to be involved,” Head Start of Washington County Executive Director Paul Pittman Jr. said. “It’s a unique opportunity for Head Start parents to participate in this program that is really helping children prepare for school readiness.”
Erica Ahalt of Smithsburg described the program as a great opportunity for her and her 4-year-old son.
“He’s learning, and I’m getting the mother and son connection at the same time,” Ahalt, 26, said. “We don’t always have the ability to buy books, so when an opportunity comes available where we are receiving books, it’s a great thing.”
According to the SCIP report, 78 percent of students entering kindergarten in Washington County are ready to begin school, based on the Maryland Model for School Readiness (MMSR) standards.
“We need to raise that so that our children are ready to learn,” Sell said. “It’s very important to us that in Washington County we increase the literacy rates, and that will improve everything right up through senior high.”
The money for the books has been raised by six foundations, each agreeing to donate $5,000 a year for the program for a three-year trial, for a total of $90,000, Sell said. The books cost $2.10 per child per month or $25.20 per year.
Low-income families are included in the program, which was first introduced as an idea at the Community Foundation’s Funders Roundtable in 2012, Sell said. The Community Foundation, United Way, WCPS, and three private foundations are taking part in the program.
“Early childhood reading is a key component to success for our children as they go through school,” United Way Executive Director Melissa Reabold said. “This is an initiative that is needed in our community, and we just see it continuing to grow as people learn more and more about it.”
The first books were mailed out in the first week of February.