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VOL. 127 | NO. 42 | Thursday, March 01, 2012

Study: Books from Birth Making Indelible Mark

By Aisling Maki

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“The Little Engine that Could” may be the perfect metaphor for Shelby County Books from Birth, a program that sends a new, age-appropriate book each month, at no cost, to all enrolled children from birth to age 5.

The classic American book about an optimistic, persistent little train that overcame the odds to meet its goal is the very first book children enrolled in the program will ever receive.

When the Shelby County Books from Birth was first launched in 2005, many predicted it would fail. But the program chugged along, ultimately becoming the single largest affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library’s 1,400 programs worldwide.

“Luckily for us, we had a couple of visionaries who really believed in the program,” said Nora Capwell, executive director of Shelby County Books from Birth.

She was joined Thursday, Feb. 29, at a press conference at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, 3030 Poplar Ave., by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who said the program faced what seemed like insurmountable obstacles from the time of its inception.

“We had all the reasons why this program was not supposed to work,” Wharton said.

“People move around all the time. There is a lot of mobility – that’s true. The post office won’t forward the books – that’s true. Children won’t get them if nobody forwards the books – that’s true. But to each of those, we said, ‘We’ll change it.’”

“We’ve gone from being that program that was not supposed to have worked to that program ... that has become the largest, in spite of all the odds.”

–A C Wharton Jr.

Memphis mayor

Books from Birth approached the U.S. Postal Service to request that they place all books returned by mail in one place. A group of retired teachers then volunteered to track down the children’s new addresses to deliver their books.

“We’ve gone from being that program that was not supposed to have worked to that program – not merely in West Tennessee or in the state of Tennessee – but that program in the United States that has become the largest, in spite of all the odds,” Wharton said.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Crissy Haslam were among those who joined Wharton Thursday to praise the positive findings of new research that shows Books from Birth is making an indelible mark on the lives of young children.

The findings of the research – a collaborative effort among Books from Birth, Memphis City Schools and the Memphis-based Urban Child Institute Research – confirm that the program has a significant impact on local children’s school readiness.

Fifty-one percent of children who participated in Books from Birth represented low and middle-income families, but regardless of family factors such as income, participating children were shown to have better home reading practices and higher reading scores than children who were not enrolled in Books from Birth.

“As a group, children who received books from the Books from Birth program reached school in stronger shape,” said Dr. Doug Imig, resident fellow at The Urban Child Institute, who conducted the study. “In fact, on an 86-point scale of reading readiness, these kids are eight points higher than children who are not enrolled in the program. This difference remains even after we adjust for family income and preschool experience.”

The findings are significant for Tennessee, which ranks 41 out of 50 states regarding indicators of well-being, and Shelby County performs among the worst in Tennessee.

“We’re trying to push this across the state,” Haslam said. “We had issues in Memphis; we had issues statewide. And the fact that we’re in 95 counties is a big deal for our state.”

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, Shelby County is home to 68,000 children under age 5. Since the program’s inception in 2005, more than 33,000 children have “graduated” from Shelby County Books from Birth and 31,000 are currently enrolled – each receiving the same monthly book, regardless of where in the county they live.

“All the things that we do in life, all the things that we accomplish, start with our ability to read and understand,” Luttrell said. “What better way to also build family unity than to read?”

The goal now is to enroll the other 37,000 children in the county who are not receiving monthly books, and to garner additional community involvement around volunteering and donating to the program, which costs just $12 a year per child.

“We need more private support to make this work,” Haslam said.

The Daily News Publishing Co. Inc. is a supporter of Shelby County Books from Birth.

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