Providence (RI) Community Library Launches New Early Learning Program

In the coming weeks, staffers at Rhode Island’s Providence Community Library (PCL) are seeking to sign up hundreds of families for its new Ready for K! school readiness program, which aims to narrow the achievement gap for poor children.
As much of the country has been bracing for a historic cold snap, staffers at Rhode Island’s Providence Community Library (PCL) have been hard at work preparing to bring some much-needed warmth to the Providence Public School Department (PPSD), as they seek to sign up hundreds of families to a new school readiness program, Ready for K! The unprecedented recruiting efforts are key to the future success of the program, which begins in March, says Michelle Novello, PCL’s program coordinator. ProvidencePreKStarting next week, two PCL staffers will be present at PPSD’s registration office—with books, children’s activities, and library cards—every day through mid-February to reach out to the community’s most under-served children, especially those whose families' first language isn't English. “[PPSD] is, of course, elated that we’re going to do this, bring a little warmth and a little fun to the office, giving [families] something to do while they’re waiting, and they’ll have someone who can speak Spanish and answer their questions,” Novello tells School Library Journal. The two-year Ready for K! program, which PCL will be offering at six of its nine branches, is being funded by $250,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) through its National Leadership Grants for Libraries initiative. Its aim is to narrow the achievement gap for children who are entering kindergarten and have not participated in formal early learning programs. The ambitious program includes not just early learning sessions for children but also family and caregiver literacy training, robust professional development for PCL’s children’s librarians and related staff, and the creation of hundreds of take-home bilingual literacy kits that will include books, activities, and information about early childhood literacy and learning standards. “It’s a really big deal for us," Novello says. "And it’s a really great direction for the library to be going in." The inspiration for Ready for K! came from many sources, including Novello’s experience over the past few years serving as part of the Providence Children & Youth Cabinet—a mayoral-founded consortium of more than 170 members of about 60 organizations—and PCL’s longstanding collaborations both with the cabinet and with the nonprofit Ready to Learn Providence. PCL’s mission for years has been to build up those relationships and embark on new ones with PPSD as well as other local agencies, including the YWCA, the Boys and Girls Club, and AmeriCorps. These relationships helped to triple participation in PCL’s summer reading program, from 600 kids in 2011 to nearly 1,800 kids in 2013, so deciding to collaborate again was a no-brainer, Novello says. “We talked about doing this project for years but didn't have funding,” she tells SLJ. “So when the IMLS grant opportunity came up specifically geared toward grade level reading, we knew this was a great project for us to do. It’s very innovative—and if it works, it could be a real pilot for other libraries and schools across the country. If it works.” Says Novello, “one of the driving theories is collective impact—that we all have our separate missions but when we all come together for a collective goal like grade level reading, then so much more can happen. So that has been where we’ve really bonded.” At the same time, “Ready to Learn has been working with the libraries for years, first with Providence Public Library (PPL) and now they work with both PPL and PCL,” Novello points out. “Ready to Learn’s mission is to prepare kids to enter school and there’s vast amounts of research about the 30-million-word gap if kids aren’t spoken to,” Novello says. “The goal of [Ready for K!] is to help those kids who go into kindergarten way behind their classmates—and that’s mostly just from parents not knowing to talk to their kids [and] read to their kids, no matter the language.” Over the next two years, PCL and its partners aim to bring in more than 400 families for two-hour learning sessions at least twice a month, with about 20–40 families to be invited to participate in the first March–August round at each of PCL's six participating library branches. Going forward, PCL will survey participants and staff, with an eye towards being a model for other libraries. PCL will also be collecting data on the subsequent use of the library by participating families, noting, for example, how many family members get library cards, how often they visit the library in the future, how many books they check out, and how many books they are reading to their kids. As soon as the grant award was announced in October, PCL hit the ground running in planning this strategy. “We are dealing with low-income families, and issues like parents working two and three jobs or working third shift, moving a lot, phones getting disconnected,” Novello says. “So there’s a lot of hurdles we’ll have to get over—but once we figure those out, it will be pretty amazing.” Transportation and weather will also impact retention of the families to the program, so PCL will be offering $25 gift cards to families that complete at least 10 of the learning sessions, Novello says. Another challenge will be the small, crowded spaces that comprise some of PCL's urban branches; without a community meeting room, these public library areas are all that will be available for the learning sessions. However, Novello is confident the program will be a success. "What we’re trying to prove is that this program will work in urban libraries, the real poor parts of town." An the meantime, PCL is focusing on recruitment, and has hired Paula Enciso to be the program’s dedicated, bilingual coordinator. Enciso has already appeared on a local radio station to appeal to Latino community groups, with more media appearances planned plus outreach in places such as hospitals, the DHS office, supermarkets, and other community gathering spaces, Novello says. “We need to expand our reach and presence in the community,” Novello says, adding, “It’s such a worthwhile project. It’s going to change things in so many of our libraries.”

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