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Reading program leaders mull ways to boost the percentage of elligible children enrolled in the program

PMG FILE PHOTO - Wilsonville's Imagination Library delivers books to about 800 kids who are 5 years old or younger.

Wilsonville Public Library Director Pat Duke and Wilsonville Public Library Foundation board member Hilly Alexander recently learned disconcerting information about the reach of the local Dolly Parton Imagination Library program.

While the program, which delivers books every month to families with children 5 years old or younger, had once provided books to 60% of the eligible children in the Wilsonville community, it now reaches about 44%.

On top of that, total enrollment has fallen from about 830 kids to about 790 between September and March, even though numbers had steadily increased since Wilsonville's branch of the nationwide nonprofit organization was inaugurated in 2012.

Both Alexander and Duke said that percentage is above average in comparison to other communities but not as high as they would like it to be. Duke aspires for 1,000 Wilsonville children to be able to open a new book each month.

The two recently testified at a Wilsonville City Council meeting asking for help and advice and are still considering options moving forward. But they do have some sense of what has caused the decline.

For one, Wilsonville's booming population has caused the overall number of eligible children to grow from 1,300 to 1,800 since 2012, comparatively shrinking the percentage of participating kids. On top of that, to keep the program at a steady enrollment level, they must replace over 20% of the population each year that become ineligibles when they turn 6.

"Right now we will probably add 25-30 kids in a month. And you think that's great — and it is — but there will be 10 or more who moved out of the community or there will be kids who have aged out," Duke said. "There might be another 15 who just age out."

And, according to Alexander, the library excels at reaching families that visit the library or have children enrolled in local preschools and day cares because program coordinators visit these institutions. But the rest of the families have proven more elusive.

"That part of our audience we've been reaching fairly well," Alexander said. "It's the kids who do not come to the library or don't go to one of the preschools who don't hear about it."

Though they haven't conducted an objective study to determine who is and isn't using the program, Duke surmised that economically disadvantaged families are less likely to sign up for the free books.

To address that issue, program coordinators post fliers in the Autumn Park subsidized housing complex, at Wilsonville Community Sharing's facility, and on South Metro Area Regional Transit (SMART) buses, advertise at local events like the community egg hunt, and have knocked on doors to tell people about the program.

However, Duke said they don't have enough resources to visit homes consistently.

"It (Imagination Library) is largely run by a few dedicated people who only have so much time in a day," Duke said.

Also, to inform the significant Latino population in Wilsonville, Community Outreach Librarian Deborah Gitlitz advertises the program to Spanish groups that meet at local schools.

Alexander and Duke said studies have shown that economically disadvantaged children benefit from Imagination Library more than more privileged children.

"You could say for kids who are underprivileged, we would make a bigger impact (than for) kids in families that already have lots of books," Alexander said.

Duke said another challenge is that some people are skeptical that the program is actually free and others are worried about the administrators sharing their data. Lbrary staff try to tell people that these perceptions are untrue.

Alexander and Duke are deliberating further actions to take to increase enrollment. But, for now, they encourage families who have benefited from Imagination Library to spread the word.

"Everybody who has a child enrolled in Imagination Library, tell everybody else," Alexander said. "They are our very best advocates because they know what a difference it makes in their child's life and how much they love reading with their kids."

Duke said the program, which costs $22,000 a year to run and is supported by the Wilsonville Public Library Foundation, is on solid ground funding-wise but would need to raise more money if they are able to reach a wider swath of the population.

All in all, Duke and Alexander are passionate about increasing membership because they believe in the benefits of reading at a young age.

"(Program enrollees) are much more likely to be ready to be in school, they have a love for reading through their life, and research is showing that kids who have been involved in Imagination Library are better off at third grade, and they're beginning to see kids who are older are doing better because they were a part of the program," Duke said.

For more information about Imagination Library, visit https://wilsonvilleimaginationlibrary.weebly.com.


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