Ann Whiddon and her three young daughters bundled up and walked to their neighborhood school, piling into the library just after 5 p.m. on a recent Monday.
Whiddon exchanged three bags of books for three new ones to take home while her two oldest, 5-year-old Ava and 3-year-old Lana, picked up crayons to color in a sheet of hearts meant to serve as cards in the game of Memory.
“I did purple!” Ava said.
“I took two!” Lana chimed in.
Their mother said Ava is excited to start kindergarten at the school, Red Trail Elementary, in the fall. In the meantime, Ava is getting familiar with the building when she visits with her family to pick up books as part of the Raising a Reader program, which is new to Mandan Public Schools this school year.
So are her two younger sisters, who love it when their mother reads to them before bed -- and any other chance they get.
“They like to sit down next to me and I read whatever book I have,” Whiddon said.
The Whiddons are among 50 families within the school district taking part in the program, which provides up to four books per week for each participating child, who range in age from birth through 5 years.
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“It’s all about early literacy development,” said Vonda Dahl, literacy coordinator for the school district. “It does not teach children how to read. Its main purpose is for children and parents to have a shared book experience.”
Research shows that access to books at a young age tends to improve a child’s reading success as a student later on in school, she said.
Raising a Reader is administered in 2,900 locations throughout the country, according to the program website. In Bismarck, the program serves more than 800 children through the Bismarck Early Childhood Education Program, Head Start, Right Track, YMCA and home visits.
The Mandan program is part of a three-year $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for literacy efforts targeted to all ages of children, from infancy to 12th grade. The school district does not offer preschool, but the Raising a Reader program fulfilled grant requirements to reach children younger than kindergarten-age.
Each bag of books available to families is labeled with an age range, such as 0-2, 3-4 or preschool. Families come to one of Mandan’s six elementary schools each week on a designated day after school to pick up a bag.
“Sometimes they say going to the library can be overwhelming because there are so many books to choose from and you never know if you are getting the right level,” said Marcy Gray, a fifth grade teacher at Red Trail who serves as site coordinator for the Raising a Reader program.
If families participate every week, they can make it through 100 books during the school year. The books cover a wide variety of topics and can expose children to diversity before they start school.
Gray tries to set out activities for families to participate in when they arrive, such as the Memory game this week, to give kids “something to do other than just pick up books.” It’s one aspect of the program parents have told her they appreciate, in addition to the convenience of making a quick stop in the neighborhood to obtain the books.
Even after the grant expires, Dahl anticipates the school district will continue to distribute the books. She said she’s aware that the pickup hours might not work for some families with limited access to transportation or whose parents work certain shifts. She would like to find ways to make sure they can participate, including by bringing books directly to them.
“I think if we reach out to some partners, get creative and think outside the box, we could do that at least in a limited fashion,” she said.
Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.