Innovative Outreach To Help the Youngest Learners

Librarians around the country are showing ingenuity and resolve in early learning outreach. Lisa G. Kropp reports.
Outreach services can help you grow your patron base beyond the bread and butter of any library—the regulars. Because of staffing logistics, though, leaving your building, for however noble a cause, is challenging. But what children’s librarian doesn’t love a challenge? The proof: these library teams going above and beyond in innovative ways to reach new users.

Reap benefits for years to come


A home visit sponsored by the Port Washington (NY) Public Library

The Parent-Child Home Program began 50 years ago as an intensive model to combat the lack of school readiness in low income children, and those deemed to be “at risk,” such as kids whose parents can’t read. Today, 40 percent of the children served come from families where English is not the first language. Toddlers age 18 months–three are typically chosen for the two-year program. They receive approximately 46 home visits between September and June. A trained home visitor brings the family a book one week, and an educational toy the next. The home visitor models early literacy and learning skills by sharing the book and toy with the child and caregiver in an interactive, casual format designed to increase the comfort level of the caregiver as their child’s first teacher. Over the two years, each family receives 46 toys and 46 books, both with guide sheets that include tips for verbal interaction. The home visitor also acts as a conduit to the community, connecting families to a swath of resources, including food, housing, and education. At the end of the program, the home visitor helps the caregiver enroll the child in a high-quality preschool, Head Start, or kindergarten. While the program has a presence around the world, only two public libraries operate one—so far. Coincidentally, they are both on Long Island, NY. Middle Country Public Library in Centereach and Port Washington Public Library in Port Washington have been at it for 20 and 18 years, respectively. pchp-image-with-computers_web

Through a Port Washington Public Library initiative, a company provides free computers to families and children who need them.

Fran Powell, the coordinator in Port Washington, is a cheerleader for the program, which is supported at her library through the Port Washington Library Foundation. “The wonderful connection with the library is getting these families to become lifelong library users,” says Powell. She recalls the day when a girl in sixth grade walked up to her in the library and said “Do you remember me? You used to come to my house and read to me.” Currently, Port Washington has 14 families, mostly Latino, enrolled in the program and two home visitors. One of the home visitors, Rodrigo, is bilingual. A benefit of having a public library run the program is the ability to share information such as library newsletters, story time schedules, and school district offerings with the families in a more relaxed, familiar manner. Powell sums up the power of the program. “When I see parents and children from those families walk through our door, into the library, I know we are doing the right thing.”

Get big results with a small staff

Parachute folding

The Pepin (WI) Public Library

The Pepin Public Library, located in Pepin, WI, is open 30 hours a week, but staffed only by library director Christie Rundquist and three, as Rundquist puts it, “very part time employees.” Yet she still makes it a priority to spend time at the village hall, where families go for their quarterly WIC appointments. WIC, the nutrition program for women, infants, and children, serves 53 percent of all infants born in the United States. Yes, 53 percent. So chances are good that Rundquist will make a connection with a library family during these outreach visits. Better yet, she will get to advocate for the library as a piece of the pre-kindergarten educational puzzle. Rundquist realized that during the WIC appointments, which are made once a quarter, caregivers were struggling to conduct business while taking care of their young children in tow. Rundquist decided to set up shop for a few hours, often repeating her storytime of oversized picture books, scarves, and songs to a cycling audience of one or two tots at a time. She doesn’t mind. “It is important to get books into the hands of these children, so I asked other community organizations for cash donations so I could purchase new, age-appropriate books,” explains Rundquist. She lets each child choose a book as their “forever book” each quarter, so that a family who attends all four WIC appointments can receive four books for each child in a year. She conducts story time in a small kitchen within sight of the office the grown-ups go to. The tots can walk back and forth if they need the reassurance of seeing mom for a moment. Rundquist began the outreach program a few years ago, after receiving a grant from her local Indian Head Federated Library System. The WIC office opens at 8 am. Yet Rundquist is there, building community. “I can introduce parents who weren’t coming to the library to our services, like the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten Program, at the same time that I introduce books, music, and large movement activities to their little ones,” says Rundquist.

Multiply the results of your outreach efforts


A color-mixing STEAM program at Chicago Public Library

What if your library could take individual outreach visits and magnify them in quantity and quality? The Chicago Public Library did just that with three ISTEAM vans providing STEAM-based story hours to over 200 Head Start and Early Head Start sites. Each site is visited twice during the school year, with the second visit scaffolding on the vocabulary, themes, and stories of the first. During the 2015–16 school year, the library conducted 3,500 outreach visits, reaching about 8,000 preschoolers. A vital piece of the ISTEAM story hours is the introduction of vocabulary that is unique to STEAM disciplines. “Scientists have their own language that they use to describe their work and themes, so it is important that young children are introduced to these words in a natural, organic way,” explains Elizabeth McChesney, director of children’s services. During a building themed session, for example, children build with foam blocks, while wearing hard hats and safety goggles. Librarians will ask questions and allow the young students to form hypotheses and share their thoughts in open-ended dialogues that enhance vocabulary. One unexpected outcome that McChesney found inspiring was getting new books into the hands of the Head Start teachers, who often lack funds to purchase them. The library was able to leave books behind in each classroom relating to the theme of that particular story hour. Another important aspect to this outreach was building a connection to the family. The library would print out a simple letter in five different languages for Head Start staff to send home. This way, families knew the library had visited. Expansion plans include ISTEAM visits to home daycare providers, and quarterly caregiver programs to share STEAM and early literacy tips and projects, empowering them to continue the dialogue at home. “The program rolled out kind of quietly this year, but it was quickly evident in the reactions of kids and teachers alike that the library was providing good, innovative service,” notes McChesney. The service will likely be sustainable and strengthen the early learning skills of children—a win-win.

Turn partygoers into patrons

Community baby showers—when Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, health centers, or United Way affiliates collect donations for maternity wards and pediatric health agencies—aren’t a new concept. What has given them a fresh spin is the recent involvement of public libraries. That makes perfect sense, given the strong potential for cross-agency partnerships and community resource sharing. While the showers are very often held right in a library’s community room, plenty of outreach is involved. First, the children’s librarian needs to attend meetings of local community organizations that are probably not a traditional literacy agent. That librarian needs to advocate to these groups that the library belongs at the same table, so to speak, in order to provide strong services across the community. This takes time and planning, as staff must do research to locate agencies, find meeting times, initiate contact, and then arrange staffing. Often, these organizations have already laid a lot of the groundwork, and are looking for drop-off locations to house the baby shower donations. The public library is a perfect fit, able to call for new and like-new clothing, blankets, and diapers on their digital platforms and in their newsletter. Some libraries, such as the Albuquerque Public Library in New Mexico and the Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library in West Virginia, take this idea a step further. They each host a community baby “fair” for new or expecting parents to receive free information from local organizations that serve young families, refreshments, small gifts, and other surprises. The quarterly community fairs at Albuquerque are sponsored by the local library foundation. This past May, 21 vendors attended the community baby fair at Clarksburg-Harrison – a record number for a library program, reports Erica Perry, children’s librarian and organizer of the event. Perry contacted hospitals, birthing centers, and health organizations months in advance. “I go to their events, and they come to my events,” she notes. Vendors brought information and giveaways, and local restaurants even provided lunch. A guest speaker addressed the concerns of new moms. No sign-ups were required. Over 100 patrons dropped in during the two-hour window. The strength of this type of outreach is seen, says Perry, in the young families coming in to check out materials and attend programs for the first time— because they were introduced to the library through that little community celebration.

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