April 22, 2017

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Ex-Cop Tackles Literacy Decline in Appleton, WI

Hmong OS Pa  Ja Yang (right) with patrons

The Appleton Public Library’s Hmong outreach specialist,  Pa Ja Yang (right) , with patrons

Don’t laugh when I tell you that 11 years of law enforcement experience with the City of Appleton helped me become a better public librarian. It’s true. When the director of the Appleton (WI) Public Library (APL) asked me to figure out how to reverse declining third grade reading scores in our community, I began an epic journey requiring a deep dive into my skill set as a cop, including investigative and problem-solving skills, cultural sensitivity, and a logical nature.

Our target audience for improved scores was identified as Hmong and Hispanic families with children from age birth to five.

In 2011, a breakdown of Appleton Area School District third grade reading scores showed that English Language Learners from Asian (primarily Hmong in our area) and Hispanic descent were far more likely to score below proficient than those whose primary language was English. Moreover, reading proficiently in our region had declined every year since 2006–2007. Our solution, Appleton Ready to Read (ARTR), was a collaborative program with several partners that has shown great success.

Research continues to confirm the importance of school readiness to lifelong success and prevention of serious problems such as incarceration, addiction, suicide, teen pregnancy, poverty, and more.

In 2012, I attended an ALSC conference presentation by Sarah Mackey, manager, Ready to Read Corps at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, which developed a home visitation program to address declining third grade reading scores in six economically disadvantaged communities. Each participating family, representing an estimated 20,758 children under five, received 12 to 18 home visits and received literacy kits promoting Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR) practices and skills. The Columbus model was our inspiration.

The problem was that Hmong and Hispanic populations in the Appleton area were not coming to our library. We had made significant efforts in providing targeted programs and collections for them in the past, with intermittent success, and we didn’t have a dedicated bilingual staff with these groups.

Then we had a serendipitous request from Yee Lee Vue, a young Hmong woman and MLIS student who was looking for a summer internship project. She brought ECRR concepts to Hmong families with children from birth to five. Friends of the Appleton Public Library provided books, crayons, and coloring books to give away during home and library visits. We used nontraditional marketing methods, but the most successful was simply word-of-mouth.

Soon, we were in homes of families who were perfect strangers, spoke a different language, and often lived in a very different socioeconomic situation than our own. These were our elusive non-users.

We secured our first Hmong family outreach specialist position (Hmong OS) with a Library Services and Technology Act grant. After a year, the Appleton Mayor and City Council saw the benefit and funded the post. To create a Hispanic OS position, we applied for and received a three-year grant from the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. The city funded the Hispanic OS position too, currently staffed by Norma Oliveras. 

Our outreach program has three components: a home visit, library visit, and class visit.

  • Home Visit The OS meets with a parent at their home to give them an overview of ECRR and highlight the importance of reading and writing with their children. The kids get a free book, crayons, and coloring book.
  • Library Visit The parent meets with the OS at the library to get a tour, learn to select age-appropriate material, receive a library card, and learn about program offerings. The OS also highlights the importance of singing and talking with kids and gives them a free musical nursery rhyme CD.
  • Class Visit Families attend an ongoing class that we call Play and Learn, where parents learn the importance of playing with their children. All the ECRR practices—read, write, sing, talk, play—are engaged through activities that reinforce reading readiness skills. We now offer this class in English, Hmong, and Spanish.

The Community Foundation grant for a Hispanic OS also allowed us to add a community initiative,  linking Hmong and Hispanic families to community programs and services that would help them prepare their kids for kindergarten.

Toys don’t have to be expensive

A young patron engages in high-quality learning with inexpensive materials.

Community Partners and joint referrals

Appleton has many different early childhood organizations that provide programs and services to families with young children. We also partnered with Fox Valley Literacy Council so that we could refer parents to a free service that would help them learn to speak and read English. Ironically, until APL stepped in there was no program that actively sought out Hmong and Hispanic families.

Patron confidentiality is a pillar of public library service but in order to better serve our Hmong and Hispanic participants we wanted to be able to refer them to our community partners. So, the Appleton City Attorney’s office helped us draft a permission form that if signed by a parent or guardian, would allow us to communicate with our partners regarding their children and family situation. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Board of Directors of each organization involved, accepting use of this form.

“It is important to understand that Hmong is traditionally an oral language and was not written until the 1950s by missionaries in Laos, so most Hmong families do not know how to raise readers,” says Pa Ja Yang. “It is rare for Hmong people to be able to read and write in Hmong and there are few children’s books written in Hmong. I give families age-appropriate children’s books in English or wordless picture books.”

Both Norma Oliveras and Pa Ja Yang, say that their families expected the TV to help educate their kids. They didn’t know how important it is to read to their children, but once they understood the importance, they were happy to develop the new habit. One of the biggest problems that both Oliveras and Yang run into is family issues with transportation. Often the families only have one car and it is with the parent who is working.

Since 2014, ARTR has served more than 400 individuals from more than 150 families. About 60 percent of the families served are Hispanic and about 40 percent are Hmong. Most of these families live 200 percent below the poverty line.

Like police officers, librarians need to be out in the community solving problems. They need investigative skills, people skills, problem-solving skills, cultural sensitivity, a logical nature, and a lot of dogged determination. However, before decide you also need a fancy car with flashing lights, let me add this. It’s more important to problem-solve in ways that are both logical and sequential—and to be able to think outside the box. Understand the issue, study the research, and know library trends. Then, personalize services in ways we haven’t thought of before.


Tanya_Misselt_headshotTanya Serrón Misselt is the children’s services supervisor at the Appleton (WI) Public Library.

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Comments

  1. Hi, Tanya! Thanks for this write-up. I am wondering about your first step. How did you locate families to visit? Did the OS go door knocking, so to speak? This type of outreach has been something I want to tackle but it’s that first step I’m unclear about, i.e. finding the families who need the help and are open. Thanks!

    • Hi Christina,

      I think a large part of the success of this program was because we had the right person at the right time. Her name is Yee Lee Vue. Personally, I think library staff should be a reflection on the community. I know that is easier said than done, but I think it is critical. That said, Yee had connections in the Hmong community in our area. She put up fliers in Hmong businesses and places that she thought the Hmong community would frequent. We also went on Hmong radio. So, look for press outlets and social media that reach your target population. After her first visit, her name spread through the Hmong community by word of mouth.

      Also, this initiative wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of our community partners and sponsors; Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, Appleton Area School District, Outagamie County Birth to 3 Early Intervention Program, UW Oshkosh Head Start, Fox Valley Literacy, Friends of Appleton Public Library, Bouwer Printing & Mailing, Thrivent Financial, Bemis Company, Pfefferle Management, Lakeshore Cleaners, Will and Ruth Bloedow and Great Northern Corporation. You can see that there was substantial community support around the issue of Early Literacy. This included Library Administration and the Board of Directors. Also, the Mayor and City Council supported it.

      Start small with a good concept and see where it takes you.

    • Also Christina, it didn’t hurt that we had books, coloring books, crayons and nursery rhyme CDs to giveaway. Appleton wasn’t big enough to pull off the Columbus Ohio model, so we sized it to our community and added our own twist. Best wishes to you Christina. Call me at the Appleton Public Library in Wisconsin anytime.

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