When President Obama called for universal PreK programs in his State of the Union address last week, he created a chance for librarians to be part of this picture. Now that there’s a federal initiative for PreK, we need to prove our vital role in educating young children.
Showing support for our youngest learners, Obama stated, “research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education…” The statement was virtually identical to one in his February 2013 State of the Union Address, when he declared, “Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road…”
Almost immediately after his latest comments, responses started pouring in. Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association (ALA), released a statement highlighting the main themes in Obama’s address, including the belief that early learning is one of the best investments we can make for our future. Stripling noted, “It is vital for policy makers at all levels to recognize libraries are part of the solution in achieving our shared vision. Libraries are a critical partner in opening the door to equality in opportunity… Our nation’s public and school libraries work together with parents and caregivers to start our children down the path to school readiness from their first story time and continue learning long after the school bell rings.”
The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) also released a statement of support for the President’s devotion to investing in high-quality programs for the nation’s earliest learners. According to Gail Connelly, executive director of NAESP, “The profound and lasting effect of a first-class early learning experience, especially during the crucial years between pre-kindergarten and third grade, underscores the vital need for Congress to work with the president over the coming year to pass legislation already introduced in the House and Senate.” Connelly was referring to The federal Strong Start for America’s Children Act of 2013, aiming to expand and improve early learning opportunities for children in the birth-to-age-five continuum.
It should be noted, however, that as the pending bill is currently written, libraries aren’t eligible to receive funding for programs or services. Visit the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Everyday Advocacy page to see how to alert state senators to include libraries in the bill’s wording.
So where does this focus on early learning leave libraries? In a pretty powerful place. Public and school libraries should strike while the iron is hot and fully embrace their role in early education situations. Library staff have an opportunity to both mentor and provide a model for caregivers. We can share best practices for creating the foundation of early learning platforms: reading, playing, singing, talking, and writing. Information about library cards and programs such as summer reading initiatives can be shared with Pre–K and Kindergarten early learning programs to ensure access to library services throughout the year. And Public and school librarians can work together to provide resources on the Common Core standards to their communities.
A recent Pew Internet survey, “The Role of Public Libraries in their Communities,” found that the public is looking to their local libraries to provide a leadership role in early learning. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, shared statistics from the survey with attendees of a January ALA Midwinter conference panel. He said that a survey of 6,224 people ages 16 and over showed that 77 percent of participants believed libraries “should definitely offer free early literacy programs to help young children prepare for school.”
Are early literacy programs in public libraries effective in the long term? The Ounce of Prevention Fund, an organization dedicated to the pursuit of equal access to high quality early education programs, has found that:
The ‘achievement gap’ is not a metaphor. It is a social outcome that we can see and measure. Research shows that the achievement gap appears long before children reach kindergarten—in fact is can become evident as early as age nine months. And at-risk children who don’t receive a high-quality early childhood education are:
- · 25% more likely to drop out of school
- · 40% more likely to become a teen parent
- · 50% more likely to be placed in special education
- · 60% more likely to never attend college
- 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.
Faced with these sobering statistics, and the limited amount of resources available for early chidhood education—currently, 39 states have state-funded PreK programs, but fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high quality pre-school program—it becomes critical for libraries to be on the forefront of the early learning brigade.
Early learning programs are effective when offered in public libraries, because they offer the building blocks needed for long term school success. An information brief titled “Impact of Public Libraries on Students And Lifelong Learners,” prepared for the New York State Education Department in October 2012, noted that “The role that public libraries play in early childhood development cannot be overlooked, as library programs, instruction, and materials may offer the only opportunities children have for exposure to important skills before they enter school. Public libraries offer a variety of programs for early learning that are aimed at developing their individual capacity, teaching necessary early literacy skills and providing information to help parents and caregivers lend vital support.”
What is your library doing to build literacy and strengthen families? Share your library’s efforts in the comments below.
Lisa G. Kropp is youth services coordinator at the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in Bellport, NY.