Get the Children Reading

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Promoting literacy helps protect the health, well-being and economy of communities, and it’s a great way to engage young readers.

by Sara Baxter

Columbus Police Sergeant Angela Florence was out on patrol recently and came upon a group of children walking. She slowed her car next to them and rolled down the window.

“Hi there,” she said to the children, who were looking a little nervous. “Would you like a book to read?” After they all nodded yes, Florence opened up her trunk and pulled out a basket of books. She handed one to each child. As part of the Real Dads Read Mobile Unit Program, which started in Columbus last fall, officers from both the Columbus Police Department and the Muscogee County Schools Police Department are driving around with books in their trunks to give to children they come into contact with.

“It’s a positive thing to see the kids engaged and surprised,” says Florence, “and it also establishes the habit of reading a book.”

It’s one example of the ways communities are working to promote literacy, an issue that has far-reaching effects on children, communities and the economy.

Creating a Path to Literacy

According to Get Georgia Reading, a statewide literacy campaign, nearly six out of 10 children are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. This statistic is important because the end of third grade marks the critical time when children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Children unable to make this transition face serious barriers for future learning.

“Imagine being in the fourth grade, where the curriculum depends on your ability to read to learn—any subject, including math and science,” says Arianne Weldon, director of the Get Georgia Reading Campaign, which is coordinated by Georgia Family Connection Partnership. “Without knowing how to read, you fall further and further behind.”

And the news gets worse. Research shows that children who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to experience poor health, have discipline problems, become teen parents and drop out of high school. As adults, they’re more likely to spend time in prison, struggle with unemployment and face shorter life expectancies.

According to a study by Northeastern University, every student who doesn’t complete high school costs Georgia an estimated $292,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity. “Getting more kids to read proficiently by the end of third grade is a way to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and improve our economic competitiveness and quality of life,” says Weldon.

To help tackle this issue, Weldon says that in 2013, more than 100 state and community leaders formed the Get Georgia Reading Campaign and created a framework for action to take on third grade reading as an urgent priority for children’s health, well-being and the future of our state. Get Georgia Reading’s framework has four pillars—language nutrition, access, positive learning climate and teacher preparation and effectiveness – that define the conditions that must be in place so that all children are on a path to literacy.

“We approach literacy as a systemic issue,” Weldon says. “Using the four-pillar framework as a guide, state and community partners explore data and research to craft strategies and adapt practices and policies to reach our universal goal—ensuring all children in Georgia are on a path to third grade reading proficiency, paving the way to improved outcomes throughout school and life.”

There is good news: Through the efforts of Get Georgia Reading Campaign partners at both the community and state levels, the needle is moving. In 2015, only 37% of children were reading proficiently at the end of third grade. In 2019, that number increased to 42%. “We are making steady, solid progress statewide,” says Weldon. “I invite our city officials to work together in their own communities and networks to firmly root the four pillars throughout the state.”

Local Efforts to Help Encourage Reading

Columbus is one community doing its part. The Real Dads Read Mobile Unit Program is the brainchild of Kenneth Braswell, CEO of Atlanta-based Father’s Incorporated. Randalette Williams, President of Chattahoochee Valley Parent2Parent, LLC and Program Manager for Real Dads Read, Colga, coordinates local efforts to implement the program in Columbus. A lifelong educator, Williams had considered implementing her own literacy campaign but was fortunate enough to partner with Braswell, who agreed to subsidize a program in Columbus by providing a regular supply of books.

When Father’s Incorporated began a Mobile Unit program in Atlanta, Williams duplicated it in Columbus, with the Columbus Police Department and the Muscogee County Schools Police Department enthusiastically agreeing to participate.

In addition to the Mobile Unit program, Williams also oversees the Little Free Libraries program, with boxes located in front of local elementary schools, and the Real Dads Read Barbershop program, which provides books in barbershops so children can read or be read to while waiting to receive a haircut.

“We’re making books readily accessible to children in multiple ways, particularly to children who might not normally have access to books,” says Williams. “They are brand new, free and they can keep them. The children love that.”

Williams receives a regular shipment of books from Braswell and uses them to restock the police cars, Little Free Libraries and the barbershops. She estimates through the Mobile Unit program they’ve given out at least 500 books so far. There is also an in-person component to the program where officers read out loud to the children but due to the pandemic, that has not been possible.

“A book can take you on such an awesome journey,” says Williams. “Reading and literacy are the foundation of anyone’s future. Our children must not take learning to read for granted.”

Just like Williams, Jennifer Price, Main Street director of Hahira, was stocking Little Free Libraries around the city. She was surprised – and pleased – that the little boxes were emptying out on a regular basis.

“We know that reading improves health and promotes lifelong learning,” Price says, and we wanted to do more to encourage reading.”

Hahira Main Street Director Jennifer Price’s two daughters in front of a downtown storefront participating in the StoryWalk program.

She got together with Main Street board member Leanne Griffin, and the two discovered StoryWalk®, a program created in Vermont that promotes literacy and physical activity by placing individual pages of a book along a path. They started a similar program in Hahira last March. Each month, they pick a book, tear out the pages, laminate each one and place the pages in the windows of businesses. Young readers can then read the story as they walk through downtown. Some pages have QR codes, that when scanned provide interactive activities associated with the book.

Price, a library science major, selects books that are aesthetically pleasing, culturally diverse, offer a problem and solution, and send out a positive message. The city of Hahira funds the program.

When it was safe to congregate outside, she introduced a monthly Saturday morning story hour at Hahira’s Train Depot in the middle of downtown. Children can listen to the book that is on StoryWalk as well as an additional book.

“It’s been amazing,” says Price of the program. “It gets families outside, brings people downtown and children read a story. Plus, anytime you have people downtown, you can increase revenue and drive economic development.”

Advocating Community Involvement

For other communities who would like to start a StoryWalk program, Price offers this advice: “Get the buy-in of local businesses and start small.”

Weldon encourages local and state leaders to apply the four pillars as a framework for action to create the conditions essential to get all kids on a path to literacy in their communities. The What’s Happening section of the Get Georgia Reading website provides ideas and examples of how communities are taking new—and often unexpected—approaches to tackle the wide range of factors that affect literacy outcomes.

“When communities get involved, we’re more likely to have kids succeeding in school and being able to succeed in life,” says Weldon. “That can have a huge return on investment in terms of workforce development, economic development and creating  a literate society.”

“When communities take the lead others will follow,” adds Florence. “We’re showing how important learning and reading is by leading by example. When you establish rapport with a child and give a book that will benefit them in the long run, that’s nothing but positive energy coming back at you.”

Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.


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