June 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Perfect Partners: Libraries and the Nationwide Pre–K Movement


Illustration by Nancy Carpenter

Last fall, the Queens Library in New York City became what is thought to be the first library in the country to open a pre–K class, in its Woodhaven branch. Teachers Andrea Clemente and Lisa Bohme meet with their students in a spacious room on the ground floor and are taking full advantage of the library’s resources. The children’s librarian visits the students frequently, playing his guitar and teaching them how to use iPads. The students have also had visits from subject-area experts, such as the science exhibit supervisor for the library system. Of course, they also have access to books, lots of books.

“On a weekly basis we take the children to the library so they can pick a book to take home for the weekend,” Clemente says. “They look forward to this activity every week.”

“It’s been, overall, a tremendous success,” says Joanne King, Queens Library’s director of communications. When registration opened for the program, 71 applications were submitted for 18 spaces.

The Queens program is a bold example of how libraries are showing leadership in the national movement to bolster early learning. As studies increasingly show that early learning supports later student achievement, financial investment on the national, state, and local level has increased. Libraries are showing that they can be ideal partners in this effort.

Funding on the rise

Enrollment and funding levels for state-funded pre–K programs across the country are now beginning to recover from the recession, according to the latest State Preschool Yearbook published annually by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. During the 2013–14 school year, state funding for pre–K increased by $116 million and enrollment in public pre–K classrooms increased by more than 8,500 four-year-olds—more than making up for funding cuts that led to the loss of 4,000 slots for children in the 2012–13 school year.

President Barack Obama has proposed a federal Preschool for All plan, which would allocate additional dollars to states in order to serve more children from moderate-income families. While some states have universal pre–K programs with no income cap for families, such as Georgia, New York, Oklahoma, and Florida, most states currently target their pre–K programs to children in low-income families. Eighteen states have also received either development or expansion grants from the U.S. Department of Education to improve their early-childhood education systems and serve more children.

The NIEER yearbook focuses mostly on state activity and doesn’t provide information on local efforts to expand access, as in New York City. But increasing spending—combined with the addition of new partners, such as libraries—could mean that states and localities are able to meet the demand for programs sooner than if they were searching for classroom space only in schools.


A pre–K classroom at the Woodhaven branch of the
Queens Library in New York City.

Preparations in Queens

The Queens program is part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to serve more than 73,000 four-year-olds in universal pre–K. The fact that schools have limited space for additional classrooms is not standing in the way. To meet the goal, the city is bringing pre–K to non-traditional spaces, with public libraries taking a role.

Queens Library’s Ravenswood branch, already a family literacy center, has also been approved for two classrooms. But King says capital improvements are needed at the site in order for the building to meet the strict licensing standards required for most early-childhood programs. At Woodhaven, that included adding small toilets to accommodate the children. The city departments of education, buildings, and health and mental hygiene all had to sign off on the facility before students could attend.

“We really had to work hand in hand with these three huge bureaucratic departments,” says Nick Buron, Queens Library vice president for public library services. “We didn’t just want to have a program. We wanted to have a great program.”

The New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the New York City Department of Design and Construction co-sponsored an event last year—called a charrette—in which representatives from city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and library systems brainstormed how to meet the design challenges faced by turning spaces traditionally used by adults into preschool classrooms. Other sites being recruited include homeless shelters, public housing buildings, and yeshivas, which have been given a set of guidelines for how to deliver full-day pre–K without violating strict religious beliefs and practices.

States have long used a mix of community-based providers, Head Start programs, and public schools to house pre–K classrooms. Inviting community-based providers to compete for pre–K funding not only provides additional classroom space, but is also seen as a strategy for improving the quality of those programs through additional training and resources. Those sites are also more likely to provide “wrap-around” care for the hours that the pre–K class is not in session—a support that many working parents need.

150701_EL-PQ1The power of literacy

Bringing libraries into that mix provides the early childhood field with a partner that is focused on literacy at a time when educators and policymakers are increasingly recognizing the importance of early language development.

“All learning is really dependent on reading,” says Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association (ALA)’s Washington, DC, office. “We’ve got to raise a nation of readers who read for pleasure.”

Susan B. Neuman, an education professor at New York University and an expert on early literacy, has observed how young children “effortlessly” interact with books in the library. They “read a few minutes—pretend read, that is—then go back to their play, then back again to books. It’s a delightful dance to see how young children integrate activities in their world.”

The Woodhaven pre–K class is also an example of how libraries are adapting to meet the needs of their communities, Sheketoff says. In some areas, libraries have hired job coaches to work with small business entrepreneurs; in others, nurses are on staff to assist people with finding healthcare services. “If you have a community that has a great need for a quality preschool, there is no better place than a library,” she says.

Buron adds that he sees the pre–K class as a sign that the mission of libraries is evolving from strictly providing informal education to delivering more formal education programming. The Queens system also created the position of an early-learning coordinator to oversee all services related to children from birth to age five, providing further evidence of the library’s shifting role. And it created an Early Learning Network to bring together a variety of government and nonprofit partners across the city working on early learning issues.

While literally housing pre–K programs might be a new role for public libraries, systems across the country have increasingly become involved in efforts to improve children’s school readiness “as the science developed and as people learned more about what children need,” Sheketoff says. Those efforts are shifting away from traditional storytimes and more in the direction of family-oriented gatherings focused around books, according to Neuman and Donna Celano of La Salle University in Philadelphia.

“The result is that libraries are now often livelier, noisier places, featuring play zones and interactive stations designed to encourage parents to engage with their young children,” Celano and Neuman wrote in the April issue of Kappan. “Children’s areas in libraries are filled with activities, toys, and games as well as books.”

Celano and Neuman are conducting a national evaluation of Every Child Ready to Read, the ALA initiative focusing on the simple practices parents and caregivers can follow to develop early reading skills—read, talk, sing, write and play. When librarians model these practices with children and offer bilingual workshops for parents, or training sessions for providers, on continuing the experiences at home, the initiative effectively reaches high-need families and immigrant parents who might “not prioritize school readiness,” they write.


Children at a childcare center that has partnered with
the Multnomah County (OR) Library.

Ready for Kindergarten

The Multnomah (OR) County Library (MCL) is an active partner in promoting early literacy and working with school districts in the county. The system has a similar effort called Every Child a Reader, which emphasizes the same message to parents, but also involves delivering books to child-care centers and family child-care homes in the county. Librarians hold early literacy workshops for preschool teachers and send literacy specialists into centers to create environments that can boost students’ readiness for school.

“We’ve always been an educational partner to the schools,” says Renea Arnold, who coordinates early childhood services for MCL. She says housing pre–K classes in libraries “opens up a lot of opportunities,” such as intergenerational programs with seniors in the community and other family-oriented gatherings.

The Multnomah system has also been involved in Early Kindergarten Transition, a three-week summer program, which began in Portland Public Schools and is hosted by 32 schools across the county. The program targets children who have not had a preschool experience, such as those on Head Start waiting lists.

In addition to holding story sessions during the three weeks, the librarians who visit the schools get a chance to interact with the children’s parents, increasing the chances that the parents will visit their local library branch.

At such a session in the Parkrose School District last summer, Midland branch librarian Barbara Head told parents not to worry about reading books word for word to their children—it was just as important to have conversations and ask young children questions about the stories. “Give them some time to think,” she said.

STEM—in English and Spanish

Libraries are also becoming providers of STEM-focused experiences for adults and children, through science exhibitions and out-of-school programs such as maker spaces and robotics workshops. These services are considered critical in supporting children’s learning and attracting them to STEM-related careers.

While these library programs are often provided on a drop-in, come-and-go basis, a summer program at the New Brunswick (NJ) Free Public Library is taking another step toward a more structured format. Math and Science Story Time (MASST) uses stories, songs, and activities to engage preschoolers and their parents in math and science concepts drawn from the New Jersey Department of Education Preschool Teaching and Learning Standards.

Developed by Alissa Lange, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, the program runs for eight weeks and features themes, such as “Do You Know How Plants Grow?” and “Are You Taller Than a Tiger?” Lange considered offering free books to families who attended at least four sessions as an incentive. But then she decided to give them a book to take home after each session that was related to the topic, and complemented the handout given to parents with ideas for at-home activities.

150701_EL-PQ2r“We wanted to capitalize on this opportunity to get more high-quality, age-appropriate, bilingual or Spanish-language STEM-themed books into the home—especially books on topics that the children were already excited about,” Lange says. “It was the most well-attended program at the children’s library, apart from their annual summer reading kickoff event, and the only Spanish-language program available.” Lange is now working on linking MASST to local preschool classrooms—almost as an extension of the curriculum—since preschool teachers bring their classes into the library once a week anyway during the spring.

As libraries in New York City look for a more prominent place in efforts to prepare young children for school, ALA last fall called for changes in federal education policy that would allow more library systems to take similar steps. Sheketoff sent a letter to the Department of Education asking that libraries become eligible to participate in the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program focusing on improving early learning outcomes.

“Our public library system stands ready to help improve early childhood education across the country,” she wrote, “but we can only do so if policies are crafted in a way that allows for better collaboration, coordination, and real partnerships between libraries and the various federal early learning programs, including SIG grants.”

In February, the department responded that local education agencies can partner with “external providers” to implement an early learning model. Sheketoff is also encouraged by the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ ConnectED Library Challenge, the effort announced by President Obama to see that every young child is signed up for a library card when they enter school as well as improve Internet access at schools and libraries nationally. This creates a greater opportunity, she says, for public and school librarians to work together to create a seamless learning experience for students.

Back at Queens Library’s Woodhaven branch, Clemente says she and Bohme have had to adjust to not having other teachers down the hall to gather ideas for their classroom. But they are combining their “individual experience to create a fun and interesting environment,” she says. The spacious room they occupy allows for a lot of physical activity, and the doors open to a small outdoor area.

While parents in Queens are pleased with this early-learning option—judging by the demand for slots—King has a few words of advice for other libraries wanting to host these programs.

“Do some consensus building in the neighborhood,” she advises. Getting the Woodhaven branch ready for pre–K last fall required a space long used by adults to be relocated to another part of the building. Since there wasn’t a lot of discussion about the change up front, some of those adults, and staff, were slightly disgruntled by the change. Buron says he wants patrons to see that Woodhaven and future branches holding pre–K classes are adding and expanding services, not swapping one for another.

It’s a winning situation for everyone, he says, adding that the pre–K parents often arrive every day with other children in tow. “When you provide universal pre–K, you’re really able to help the whole family,” he says. “These are our customers as well.”

With the Queens Library showing how a partnership between the library and a growing pre–K system can work, it’s likely that other communities will implement similar models in the future. Not only can libraries help meet the demand for space, but, as Neuman says, opening pre–K classes in libraries “would send an important message about the power of literacy and books to promote learning.”

Jacobson-Linda_Contrib_WebLinda Jacobson is a California-based education writer.

This article was published in School Library Journal's July 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
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  1. Karen Nemeth says:

    Librarian Cen Campbell and I wrote about this topic for NAEYC’s Teaching Young Children magazine – which is also available in Spanish. http://www.naeyc.org/tyc/article/the-new-children-librarian Another important thing to remember is that libraries can have scheduling flexibility not offered by schools, and libraries can access resources in so many needed languages! Thanks, libraries!

  2. Great article– and so on point!
    Public libraries should offer programs which intentionally incorporate early literacy skills, while also connecting to school readiness domains (cognitive/general knowledge, language/communication, approaches to learning, physical well-being, and social-emotional development). The public library is in the perfect position within the community to serve families and children who will not attend any other formal setting before entering kindergarten. Public libraries have a responsibility to these families to create programs which are intentional in reaching these families, and intentional in activities which foster readiness and early literacy skill development.

    Our library, Paul Sawyier Public Library, in Frankfort, Kentucky, offers a “Countdown to Kindergarten” program for parents and preschool children. I developed this program based on the six early literacy skills and five best practices of Every Child Ready to Read, as well as the five domains of school readiness. The goal of this program is intentionally rooted in fostering these skills as the child and family prepare for kindergarten. Another intentional piece of our program include input from community preschool and kindergarten teachers. We have been able to build a collaborative bridge, which helps in the delivery and promotion of our program.

    If you would like more information on the Countdown to Kindergarten program, see Counting Down to Kindergarten: A Complete Guide to Creating a School Readiness Program for Your Community at http://www.alastore.ala.org/detail.aspx?ID=11363 or https://www.facebook.com/countingdowntokindergarten.