Posted on Mar 01, 2023
For our opening meeting for the month of March, Christina Cooper of United Way of Larimer County gave us a fact-filled presentation about early childhood literacy, both in general and in Larimer County, including a summary of the Larimer County United Way’s relatively recent association with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.  The Imagination Library, launched by Dolly Parton in 1995 in honor of her illiterate father, has spread from its East Tennessee start to many sites across the country.  The objective is to provide quality books to children zero to five years old, starting from date of enrollment and continuing each month from ages zero to five.  Although the basic cost of doing this is approximately $30 per child per year, in 2020 Governor Polis signed Senate Bill 20-185 creating the Imagination Library of Colorado with the following objectives: to establish an Imagination Library affiliate in every Colorado county, to enroll 60% of the children in the state in the program, and to provide 50% of the cost of the books (bringing the local cost down to $15 per child per year). 
In July 2022, United Way of Larimer County became the Larimer County affiliate, enrolling children to participate and being the interface with the Imagination Library and its Book Order System (BOS).  United Way of Larimer County pays approximately $1.25 per month per child thanks to the State of Colorado/Imagination Library Colorado covering 50% of Colorado affiliate’s costs. The Imagination Library and Dollywood Foundation cover all overhead expenses, provides the BOS database and support, coordinates the “Blue Ribbon Book Selection Committee”, and coordinates the monthly book order and fulfillment. 
The Blue Ribbon Book Selection Committee, a selection of early childhood professionals, selects the appropriate books for each age level.  The first book is always “The Little Engine That Could” and the last book is always “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I come!”.   Each book is selected for a special purpose and book-sharing guides are included.  Two books in each age group each year are bilingual in English/Spanish.  The Imagination Library Logic Model includes the expectation that caregivers will read daily with the children.  The model includes goals that are short-term (enhancing the home-literacy environment, creating positive attitudes about reading and encouraging increased interactions between caregivers and children during book reading), intermediate (increased emerging literacy skills including alphabet knowledge and increased vocabulary) and long term (increasing kindergarten literacy readiness). 
Ms. Cooper spent several minutes talking about the pre-K literacy environment in which this program is working.  She shared local data from Poudre School District’s kindergarten reading assessments over the last 7 years. PSD’s goal is to have 85% of kindergarteners at/above grade level expectations during the fall/beginning of the year assessment. Unfortunately, annual surveys show that the percentage of children meeting this goal has been declining steadily since before the pandemic, recently at around 65% overall and at 52% for children eligible for reduced-cost lunch and only 39% for those eligible for free lunch.  The pandemic simply increased this rate of decline.  Some 33% of children in the youngest grades are missing reading benchmarks.  In part, this seems to be due to a shortage of educators trained in phonics and phonemic awareness. 
Within this discouraging setting, she points out the benefits of reading to children: creates new bonds in the family; teaches reading basics; improves skills in logical thinking and communication; and helps them sleep.  Children being read to hear approximately 1.4 million more words than children who are never read to and they are exposed to a broad range of challenging experiences or emotional situations.  Some 80% of children living below the poverty threshold fail to develop reading proficiency by the end of the 3rd grade.  With 90% of brain development occurring by age 5, with a lack of literacy exposure, about 1 in 3 children start kindergarten without the needed language skills to learn to read.  In a study in Ohio, encompassing some 500 children who participated in an Imagination Library program and some 5000 children who did not, some 60% of the Imagination Library children were prepared to enter kindergarten whereas only 45% of the other children were.  Simply the receipt of the books led to much more common reading to children by caregivers and to many more requests to be read to by children. 
United Way of Larimer County literacy support system includes not only the Dolly Parton Imagination Library but also the Colorado Readings Corps, which works with children from kindergarten to 3rd grade.  Lincoln Middle School includes a “Readers are Leaders” program.  Of some 17,000 eligible youth in the Larimer County United Way service area, she expects to have some 65% included in the program by the end of the fifth year (that is, four years from now) with a total program cost over the five years of some $575,000 – approximately $15 per child per year.  The current enrollment is about 4800 children, largely in Fort Collins. 
How can Rotary help?  Volunteer.  Spread the word.  Sign up kids, grandkids, neighbors.  And make gifts -- $15 covers the cost of 12 books for 1 child for one year.  Or contact Ms. Cooper (the Senior Director & Interim VP of Resource Development for the United Way of Larimer County) at CCOOPER@UWAYLC.ORG
Questions:  Are there multi-lingual resources?  Yes, both with the books and for the application forms. 
Will Dolly Parton come here to encourage participation?  Once all of the zip codes in the state have affiliates, she will probably come.  Ms. Cooper actually has a Dolly photo cutout that can be used for selfies associated with the program. 
What about families where the caregivers can’t read?  That is certainly a problem on which they are working, but statistics say that even living in a home surrounded by books is helpful. 
We have a donation page linked to our website for donors who wish to give directly to the Imagination Library in Larimer County (here is the link), and it’s also a drop-down option on our general online individual and employee giving pages.