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Virginia Journal of Education

A Running Start

Through 'Books for Babies,' the Galax Education Association is promoting school readiness.

by Tom Allen

If you’re a resident of the Galax area and your family is blessed with a new addition, you’ll probably get some nice baby gifts from friends, neighbors and relatives. But you’ll also get a gift from someone you probably weren’t expecting to be a part of your celebration—the teachers and education support professionals of the Galax Education Association.

And GEA’s gift will probably have an even longer-lasting impact than the onesies, pacifiers and rattles that came from others.

Through its “Books for Babies” program, GEA reaches out to new parents, bringing them the message that it’s never too early to think about the education and literacy skills of their children. Proud parents receive a packet, which includes two books that parents can read to their newborn immediately and in years to come, a sheet offering tips on reading to infants and toddlers, bookmarks, and information on the local public library and other literacy resources in the area.

“We feel very strongly about the importance of literacy, and we’re proud to be doing this,” says Jessica Justus, GEA’s president. “Reading is very important, and not just in the schools. We want to extend that idea into the community.”

Because the Galax area has a growing Hispanic population, GEA has created packets featuring books in Spanish, as well. “We want something we can do for all parents,” says Justus. “We’re really trying to put a focus on reading and education.”

GEA’s efforts have been well received so far, reports Justus. “Families are surprised to get something from us,” she says, “and they’ve greatly appreciated it. The packets have also been a huge eye-opener for some new parents. They say, ‘I didn’t realize we needed to start this so early.’”

But parents do need to start with literacy skills right away, because the ability to read well is not only a fundamental skill that affects the learning of young people, it is also a predictor of how well students will do in other subjects, such as math and science. Consider these literacy facts:

• Students who enter school behind their peers in knowledge and skills may have difficulty catching up, making their odds of academic and life success longer. Some research has shown that half of the achievement test scores gap among races in high school students can be traced to a lack of school readiness.

• The National Academy of Sciences notes that much of the human brain develops in the first five years of a child’s life. A stimulating environment during these years can change the very physiology of the brain. Children who are read to by their parents tend to become better readers and do better in school.

• Strong reading skills protect young adults against unemployment and help account for a difference in earnings, according to the Child Trends DataBank. Further, parents with weak reading skills are likely to pass them along to their children.

• By the time they’re four years old, children in families where at least one parent is working in a professional field hear 35 million more words than children of parents on welfare, according to the Educational Testing Service.

GEA makes sure that local parents get a running start by keeping Twin County Regional Hospital stocked with packets. Justus estimates that nearly 300 have been given away so far in 2008, including to the first baby born this year, a little girl who debuted at 10:22 a.m. on January 1 and now has begun her own personal reading collection.

Funds to support “Books for Babies” have come from a number of sources. Last year, in conjunction with Read Across America, GEA held a “Hat Day,” which allowed high school students to pay $1 to wear a hat to school and put a sticker on it promoting literacy and the program. That raised almost $200, and individual supporters have made private donations, too. The biggest source of money came in the form of a $1,000 VEA grant last year, money which will secure the program’s existence into the future.

In the past, Galax High School students have also lent a hand by printing some of the packet’s materials. Justus and GEA hope to expand “Books for Babies” involvement to include middle and elementary school students and even the local business community.

Reading skills are too important not to continue and expand the program, says Justus. “We identified a need in our community,” she says, “and, through these packets, we’re providing a no-excuse approach to literacy.”

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.



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