Empower families with a community family literacy center embedded in a school library… 
Schools are in the midst of great change, and librarians are searching for niches in which they can serve the information and social needs of communities. Most educators, such as school librarians and literacy specialists, are determined to keep pace with the rapid changes in our schools. The legacy of No Child Left Behind, the adoption of the Common Core Standards and rising pressure to raise test scores leave us feeling that meeting those challenges often requires a willingness to think bigger and break down silos that keep community resources separate. Where do we begin to raise student achievement?

We begin at the beginning, according to the late childhood researchers Dr. Betty Hart (1927-2013) and Dr. Todd Risley (1937-2007), that incredible window of time between birth and 5 when a child will learn between 2,100-2,200 vocabulary words and his brain will grow to 90% of an adult brain size. At no time in a human lifespan does the brain replicate this ability to learn vast amounts of information. Yet, incoming kindergartners enter school with significant differences in their exposure to books, language, social skills and other school readiness indicators. Furthermore, Hart and Risley also calculated a significant vocabulary word gap between high and low-income children by the age of 3.

Some innovative programs like the one in our school library, the Family Library Media Center, reach out to families to provide a coordinated literacy program, which uses community and district resources. This combined library approach unites some of the public library emphasis on individual growth and community support with a school library focus on children. In this way, it’s possible to reach entire families to strengthen literacy as a shared family goal. This hybrid library model is slowly getting more attention as a way to pool available resources. In some cases, the combination of school and public library roles has been a solution for cash-strapped towns to consolidate services under one roof. In others, such as our library, the effect of targeted outreach to a complete family unit is well supported by research in affecting birth to 3 language acquisition.

As a child’s first and most important teachers, parents have a responsibility to provide a literacy environment that is stimulating from birth. As the Hart and Risley study data showed with startling clarity, students who go on to strong school achievement began early childhoods in a home environment which was rich in sensory and language experiences, followed by daily exposure to books. Daily routines of a child aged birth to 3-years need to be filled with these experiences, as well as speech to emphasize language acquisition. Community resources such as schools, preschools, social service agencies and libraries need to coordinate programs to provide this critical support to families. With resources, encouragement and opportunity for learning, parents can engage with their children to consistently provide an information-rich environment for their children that has long-reaching effects on learning.

Putting theory into practice with an idea that can be replicated elsewhere:
Our experience in community family outreach began with a school principal’s vision of possibilities that could be achieved through the school library. Funded through the generosity of several grants such as Even Start, the Community Foundation of Northwest Connecticut, and the William Caspar Graustien Foundation, the district family literacy specialist and the library media specialist worked together to create a dedicated space for families in the community.  The space was called The Community Family Literacy Center (CFLC). The CFLC offers a range of parenting materials and extends borrowing privileges of the 17,000-item school library collection, use of computers and iPads to the entire Torrington, Connecticut, USA community. Our patrons include families from all five-district elementary schools and families with children ages birth through five living in Torrington. Like a public library, The Community Family Literacy center is open after-school on Tuesday evenings and projected summer hours.

The CFLC provides a variety of rich materials, but is far from a passive collection. The active programming offered on Tuesday evenings throughout the school year encourages family interaction with the materials and technology provided in enhancing parenting practices. For example, an author of a book on active child movement spoke at one of the Tuesday evening programs and parents checked out copies of his book to use at home with their children. In another presentation, the chief of pediatrics from the local hospital spoke to parents about child development—a topic represented broadly in the parenting collection.

We recognize the challenges that early education teachers and home care providers face in developing literacy curricula. These critical teacher links in the birth to pre-kindergarten literacy continuum are often underpaid and underserved in professional development opportunities. For this reason, a section of the Community Family Literacy Center is dedicated to early childhood reference materials and classroom learning materials. The literacy specialist provides instructional programming for teachers throughout the year, exploring topics like managing challenging classroom behaviors and providing rich-literacy early childhood experiences through read-aloud strategies.

It takes a community effort to provide programming to raise literacy levels.
Schools and public libraries have always shared the mission of providing the right information at the right time for patrons both big and small. Also squarely in our shared mandate is helping to raise literacy levels among adults and create a more even playing field among our youngest patrons. Reaching out to all families in a community to provide coordinated literacy programming using our shared collections encourages parents to provide these experiences at the very beginning of a child’s life. This critical window of growth deserves the support that can make such a difference in the trajectory of literacy. The stakes are incredibly high.

About the Authors:
Shannon Betts (MLS, MAT) has spent 7 years as reference and instruction librarian at the university level, and is now a teacher-librarian and Even Start Family Educator in a 
K-5 school in Connecticut. Shannon focuses on information literacy and finding ways to innovate the library classroom for children and families using technology. Follow Shannon on Twitter @Sbetts8 to keep up with the latest in information/digital literacy and educational technology.
Paula Gajewski (MS & Certified Reading and Language Arts Consultant) is an Early Childhood Literacy Specialist, Family Educator, and coordinator for the Community Family Literacy Center for the Torrington Public Schools. Paula works with families and teachers of preschool children, is a literacy support for the Even Start program, is an active member of the Torrington Early Childhood Collaborative, coordinates events, writes grants for funding, and promotes and markets the Community Family Literacy Center to the community. Follow the CFLC on Twitter @TorringtonCFLC

Originally published at Connect Learning Today.