Childhood literacy program expands citywide

All Syracuse young children to receive books every month.

With the support of the city of Syracuse, the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County received $50,000 from the Common Council on Monday to expand a childhood literacy program. The coalition’s executive director Ginny Carmody said this has been the goal of the program since its inception four years ago.

“We’ve always wanted to provide books to every child in the city,” she said.

The Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County operates the Dolly Parton Imagination Library in Syracuse, which was launched in May 2010. Started by the singer herself in 1995, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is an international nonprofit that promotes early childhood literacy by providing age-appropriate monthly books to children from birth to age 5 -- at no cost to the family and regardless of income. The city covers the shipping and handling costs while the Dollywood Foundation covers the purchase price of the books. 

“In one school, none of the kids were reading at grade-level. It’s a very frightening value.”
- Dr. Frank Ridzi

Before this additional funding was approved, the program only served children in Syracuse’s North and Near Westside in zip codes 13208, 13203 and 13204, generally the poorer neighborhoods of the city. Syracuse’s Director of Administration Beth Rougeaux said that the extra funding had already been part of the city’s budget and that the Common Council just needed to appropriate the funds.

With this money from city, plus another $120,000 awaiting approval from the county, Carmody said he is anxious to start serving all Syracuse children as soon as the money comes in. She hopes that the program will reach all eligible children by January 2015.

“It’s certainly a very important milestone. We are really fortunate to have this ongoing commitment,” she said.

Since the program started in Syracuse four and a half years ago, program officials and partners agree that the feedback has been positive. Imagination Library has reached 3,500 city children and distributed 60,000 books so far. Members of Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit that supports K-12 students in the Syracuse City School District, have noticed the improvement in students’ reading skills, too.

“I’ve only seen very good progress,” Pat Driscoll, director of operations for Say Yes Syracuse, said. “The growth has been good enough to expand.”

Say Yes is just one of many partners of the Literacy Coalition. St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse’s Westside has been key in referring children to the program, accounting for 30 percent of those currently enrolled.  Professors at Le Moyne College and Syracuse University have tracked data to evaluate the effect of Imagination Library in Syracuse.

Dr. Frank Ridzi, director of Urban and Region Studies at Le Moyne College, conducted some of the research to assess how the program has influenced its readers. The findings have been published in several scholarly journals.

“We found that in those families exposed, daily reading has doubled,” he said.  “It’s a major indicator of later school readiness and performance in school.”

Dr. Ridzi, also an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Le Moyne, said he used several methods to evaluate the library’s success. He said that grade-level reading is commonly used as a benchmark to measure how on track a student is in their studies.

“In one school, none of the kids were reading at grade-level. It’s a very frightening value,” the professor said. However, he was optimistic with the library’s success so far to change that statistic. “We’re moving in the right direction and hoping to turn the tide in some schools.”

The data is part of a larger report assessing early childhood and school readiness. Thrive by Five, compiled by the Onondaga Citizens League, proposes that healthy children, early learning, and strong families all factor into school readiness.  Laurie Black chaired the report and is a member of the league, a group committed to improving the community’s economy and quality of life. While the Imagination Library addresses the literacy component of early learning, she says that is just one facet that determines how ready a child is when he enters school.

“The problem is not having a clue about a child’s overall health,” Black said.  “How are kids doing before they hit school in Onondaga County?”

Black, also the administrator of Syracuse 20/20, a nonprofit association of central New York business leaders and partner of the Literacy Coalition, calls for a more collaborative approach to readiness in the home before a child enters school. She agrees that the good reception could be a factor in the library’s expansion.

“Everything has been promising,” she said.  “Parent engagement with a child, language development, those are the building blocks for success later in life.”

While Carmody shares her partners’ happiness about the program’s success, she says that it is too soon for the big celebration. She wants to see the outcomes next fall when the first group of children that entered the Imagination Library at birth will be starting kindergarten. And as for the library’s next chapter, Carmody hopes to expand it even further to reach all children in Onondaga County.

“The goal is school readiness,” she said.  “When we get everyone ready, that will be gratifying.”

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