BELOIT - One way the School District of Beloit is working to improve academic outcomes is to expose the city's tiniest learners to reading.
The school board approved Superintendent Tom Johnson's recommendation to add an administrative position to address early literacy intervention for children age birth to 3 in July.
(Superintendent Johnson is on administrative leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation.)
Rachelle Elliott was hired as Beloit's Early Literacy Program director, and she's dedicated to reducing the number of struggling readers in the 4K through third grade age group, using a program called Beloit Books Build Brilliant Brains. If kids are exposed to reading early on, Elliott said, studies show they are less likely to struggle as readers and will be better equipped to succeed in school.
To increase exposure of young children to literacy, Elliott is focusing on parent and family outreach, education and mentoring.
In an interview in early October, Elliott said she had been working with Head Start, Even Start, Community Action Inc. and the Stateline Boys and Girls Club to reach more children and parents through what she's named "Families Play, Learn, and Grow Together" playdates. The first playdate was held at the Merrill Community Center on Oct. 4, and one was held in conjunction with ABC Playhouse and Community Action at the Merrill Community Center on Oct. 28.
The hour-long events are open to any child birth to 3-years-old and their families.
Elliott works with parents on the importance of reading, singing or talking to children. Even if the child doesn't appear to be paying attention, she said the child's brain is developing and learning the building blocks of language.
Although some agencies such as Head Start already offer services to families, Elliott noted a family of three can't earn more than $21,924 to qualify for help.
"Many families slightly over the income threshold aren't receiving coaching and strategies to put language in their child's world," Elliott added.
The district is providing a Family Literacy Conference for families who cannot attend the playdates.
"We can set up a time for families and so we make a specific plan for their family in the areas of reading, math, vocabulary and language development while checking their child's current and future milestones," Elliott said.
The district has a website that can update families on its current events and frequently asked questions at https://www.sdb.k12.wi.us/Domain/694.
Elliott cited a well-known study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) which found some children hear 30 million fewer words by their fourth birthday than their more privileged counterparts.
Alarmingly, kids who start behind often stay behind, in what is known as the achievement gap.
But Elliott said the gap in language that is present in many communities around the country is solvable. The more parents talk or read to their children, the faster the youngsters' vocabularies grow.
"Early intervention is the key. Parents are a child's first teacher and we want to empower families to be reading and playing with their kids to get them ready for school," Elliott said.
Elliott, who already is working with teen moms in the district, has been reaching out to community partners to broaden the opportunities for small children to develop language. She's hoping to also partner with Latino Service Providers, Stateline Community Foundation, Family Services and the Beloit Public Library.
She also intends to contact healthcare providers in hopes they can work together to get books in the hands of children. Elliott wants to get a literacy booth at the downtown Farmers Market. And she plans to approach daycares, local churches or even apartment buildings to get more playdates set up and volunteers enlisted.
"We would like to create a culture for literacy and provide a language-rich environment for our children. Part of that is getting the entire community on board," Elliott said.
Elliott also is working with ImagiNation Library, through the Dolly Parton Foundation, which signs up families to receive books in the mail.
Another goal is to launch a public campaign encouraging families to read to kids for 15 minutes a day.
"The possibilities are endless. We want to get books in kids' hands so they can hold them and be happy," she said.