West Linn Library Youth Services Manager Sarah Flathman has a vision.
Picture a local kindergarten teacher welcoming in a new class a few years from now — say, 2024.
Each child brings their own set of strengths and challenges, but most, if not all, students arrive with one thing in common: a baseline set of reading skills developed while participating in the Dolly Parton's Imagination Library program.
"They have the same background knowledge, the same book references, they've been exposed to this regular routine of reading," Flathman says. "These kids are showing up, and they're just ready to learn in the classroom."
That's the dream, and an attainable one at that, as the West Linn Public Library becomes one of the newest affiliates in the Dolly Parton's Imagination Library organization — known as the largest children's literacy program in the world, according to Flathman.
Neighboring Wilsonville joined the program several years ago, and dozens of other cities across the state are also members.
The goal of the program is simple: to promote early childhood literacy by providing a free book every month for children ranging from birth to 5 years old.
"It makes it that much easier for (kids) to build up a home library full of age-appropriate materials that really support their development," Flathman says. "And what's great about the books is they have diverse themes. They're based on developmentally appropriate practice and interests, but they also have a lot of support for parents."
Specifically, Imagination Library books include a series of questions a parent might ask the child before reading them, as well as ideas for how to read interactively and follow-up questions when the story is finished.
"The first book every child gets is 'The Little Engine That Could,' and the last they get is 'Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!'" Flathman says. "The Dolly Parton's Imagination Library Organization works with Penguin Random House (publishing company) so they're able to get books at a steeply discounted cost, and then brand them personally to add in those additional resources."
West Linn's program is funded largely through the West Linn Library Foundation, though it also has received individual donations and support from the Cedaroak Park Parent-Teacher Organization and the West Linn Lions Club.
"We've been looking for something to hang our hat on," Library Foundation Chair Martha Swanson says. "We raised enough money to hopefully run the program for two years. We have enough in our coffers to run it for two years, but we will continue fundraising."
More funds likely will be needed sooner rather than later, as the program already had 212 members as of Feb. 28.
"In the first week of our soft launch, we've signed up the number we were projected to sign up in one year," Flathman says. "So we've really exceeded our expectations. I think we're going to have to be putting on our fundraising hats sooner rather than later, but this is definitely a good problem to have."
"We have (signed up) over 20 percent of the children in our community under the age of 5," Library Director Doug Erickson says. "That's fantastic."
For Erickson, introducing the Imagination Library is a significant step forward in the library's promotion of early childhood reading — a crucial tenet of development that Flathman emphasized when she arrived at the library in 2015.
"When we brought Sarah in from New York, her emphasis on early childhood education kind of helped me become more aware of what the needs were for children before they hit school, and what the Department of Education expectation is for a child entering kindergarten," Erickson says.
"Forty percent of all children in Oregon don't meet the benchmarks standards when they go into kindergarten, and I think in our community it's more understanding what (those standards) are and giving (parents) the tools to help their children get there."
"Research shows that activities such as reading regularly with children, beginning in infancy, can produce a significant growth in I.Q., which lasts a child's lifetime," Imagination Library Regional Director Pam Hunsaker says. "I hope that every family in the West Linn community will read with their children daily and experience the joy and wonder of their children's imaginations."
You can sign up for the program at https://imaginationlibrary.com/usa/affiliate/ORWESTLINN/ or in person at the library.
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