After President Obama’s January 2014 State of the Union address, I reported on renewed federal support for preschool education and the potential role of libraries. It’s even more critical for these institutions to provide early learning services to those who need it the most: poor children.
The effects of the income gap are starkly evident in long-range studies of our youngest learners. Before even entering kindergarten, the average cognitive score of children in the highest socioeconomic status (SES) group was 60 percent above the scores of the lowest SES group, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort, a 2002 comprehensive report that provides a nationally representative picture of kindergarteners. Moreover, average math achievement was 21 percent lower for blacks than for whites and 19 percent lower for Hispanics.
Coupled with these sobering statistics is the lack of resources for early childhood education. Currently, 39 states boast state-funded PreK programs, but fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.
So it’s imperative that libraries search out the non-traditional users—those members of the community who don’t frequent the library. This requires understanding your community’s demographic makeup so you can target outreach to groups that aren’t utilizing your services. It’s too easy to miss the people who need your services, so get out into your community.
Sure, we’re all understaffed and underbudgeted and have no extra hours in our already packed workdays. But it’s not enough to serve the needs of regular library users, those who know the ins and outs of our programming and interact regularly with the reference desk. Are we truly providing quality customer service if we fail to reach diverse populations and the underserved?
According to a November 2013 report by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, about a quarter of all babies and toddlers in the United States are Latino, but these kids are half as likely to have family members read to them and a third less likely to have songs sung to them than white, non-Latino children. And about a third of Latino children live with parents who lack a high school degree. Many of these parents don’t understand the power of reading, singing, and playing with their young children, says Sandra Gutierrez, national program director of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, a peer-to-peer training program for Latino families, based in Los Angeles.
So how can busy librarians identify non-library users? You can start by conducting a community needs and assets assessment. Who lives in the neighborhoods that your library serves? What is the percentage of stay-at-home moms? What are the income levels of your neighbors? What do parents of young children want from the library—daytime classes or evening and weekend storytimes? Are there local, for-profit agencies that provide early childhood programming? What time are local church services held on weekends?
Sometimes we fear asking these questions because we’re afraid of knowing the answers—because having that information might imply the need for systemic change within our institutions. Still, it’s vital to survey your community and assess its needs so you can begin to restructure—or build from scratch—a solid early learning program that puts the library at the apex of this important work.
So tell us: What is your library doing to promote early literacy? And are these efforts reaching nontraditional users? What do you think you could do better? Share your library’s efforts in the online comments.