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How did you find your favorite books as a young child? Were they gifts? Were they passed down from your parents or older siblings? Maybe your kindergarten class was lucky enough to have just a few on hand that you could choose from.

Well, thanks to a nationally beloved non-profit, Oklahoma City children are being given the opportunity to not only find and enjoy a huge selection of books geared toward their ages, but to take them into their homes as well as into their families.

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Willow Brook Pre-K student Bill Fairbanks reads from a book provided by the Raising a Reader program. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

The Raising a Reader program has already been a rousing success at Willow Brook, Thelma Parks, and Martin Luther King Elementary Schools in Oklahoma City Public Schools. But, beginning with the 2022-23 school season, the program will be in place at every OKCPS school with Pre-K through 2nd grade.

“It’s just a really great program,” said Dr. Stephanie Hinton, Director of Early Childhood Education for the district. “We’re creating routines and habits in the home that encourage lifelong learning.”

“An Ongoing Connection”

Raising a Reader is a simple concept:

  • Each classroom from pre-k through second grade gets 26 bags that each contain a selection of four or five books aimed at those students’ age ranges and demographics.
  • Each week, every student takes home a bag of books to read and enjoy with their parents or siblings.
  • The next week, they bring that bag of books back to school and swap it out for a different bag full of different books, and the rotation continues throughout the school year until every student has had a week with every bag.

The idea behind the California-based non-profit is that this rotation of books into the homes of young students can not only help to foster a love and appreciation for reading outside of school, but also create a community among children in which they can each discuss and bond over their favorite books.

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Willow Brook Elementary Pre-K students in Charlene Robinson’s classroom read from books provided by the Raising a Reader program. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

Most importantly, though, the program is a strong encouragement for parents to get involved with their children’s education and growth as readers.

“As educators, we’re always thinking about the ways that we can engage families in the academic process,” Dr. Hinton said. “With Raising a Reader, we’re going to be able to provide an ongoing connection around literacy development with the families. There is something very different and very unique about sitting down with a child and reading a story with them or to them. It nurtures that relationship and fosters a love of learning and of reading.”

Finding Funding

The first three Metro schools to have implemented the Raising a Reader program to great success for the past five years were funded primarily through generous donations, the district-wide expansion is only possible thanks to pandemic relief funds.

Dr. Stephanie Hinton, OKCPS (provided)

As part of the nationwide CARES Act of 2020, the federal government created the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund  to help schools and districts pay for programs designed to reaffirm and repair the educational landscape damaged by COVID.

When OKCPS began considering how to use their allotment of those funds, expanding this already proven program encouraging literacy and parental involvement was a no-brainer.

“It fit right in with what the district was looking for as far as ESSER projects go,” Dr. Hinton told me. “It’s a non-profit organization, so we’re essentially paying for a product that they have put together for us and for Raising a Reader to implement it in our district. And we get a lot of resources that come with that as well, like training.”

In a time of continuing budget and appropriations issues for education in our state, even something as simple and straightforward as providing take-home books to young students would be virtually impossible without the non-profit’s help.

“It’s just a bag of books, you know, it’s not the most novel idea,” Dr. Hinton says with a laugh. “But it has the infrastructure and support in place, and it has a curriculum for us to look through and figure out what works for us and for our students and families.”

“Raising Future Adults”

Though Hinton is palpably excited about the prospect of seeing Raising a Reader expanded across the district, she is quick to point out that it is just one step toward creating a deeper, more engaged community around early childhood education, especially in terms of reaching more parents and children during those all-important first formative years.

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Principal Richelle Dodoo-Taylor, Willow Brook Elementary School, OKCPS (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

“We have a childcare issue in our country,” she said. “We have childcare deserts in Oklahoma City, and childcare deserts across our state, and it’s an access issue.”

“And, it’s not that I see school as the only answer, but you do see a lot of places around the nation diving into three and four-year-old programs now because it’s a way to address that childcare issue. I’m a big believer that childcare is something that should be free and accessible to all, just like public school.”

Ultimately, Dr. Hinton’s focus is on not only raising the level of education in OKC, but on helping to reframe the bigger picture of the goals and benchmarks in our children’s educations away from something purely academic and quantified to something more lasting and universal.

That’s why she believes it’s so important for a program like Raising a Reader to get books into the hands, minds, and hearts of children even outside of school.

“We are raising future adults,” she said. “The habits that we’re building through reading, through creating lifelong learners, to me, that will always be more valuable than a test score.”

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Teacher Charlene Robinson and her Pre-K class at Willow Brook Elementary holding their Raising a Reader book bags and books at the end of the school year 2021-22. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

Last Updated May 14, 2022, 8:31 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor