July 6, 2021

Indiana Nonprofit Partners With Dolly Parton To Increase Early Literacy

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A nonprofit is partnering with Dolly Parton to improve reading skills in kids younger than 5. - (WFIU/WTIU)

A nonprofit is partnering with Dolly Parton to improve reading skills in kids younger than 5.

(WFIU/WTIU)

Low reading scores have impacted some Indiana students long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now an initiative from Hoosiers Read aims to reach kids at an earlier age by giving free monthly books to kids up to five years old in order to improve literacy across all 92 counties in the state.

Hoosiers Read is a nonprofit focused on improving early child literacy in the state. The founder of the local organization, Ben Battaglia, said they want to help students early so they don’t wind up behind later on.

“If kids are late to read, they spend their early grade school years learning to read, as opposed to reading to learn,” Battaglia said. “So the earlier you can get kids the literacy skills, it helps accelerate growth as they move on.”

The most recent state data shows 87 percent of Indiana’s third graders as reading proficient, while some groups of students — such as English Language Learners, students from migrant families and students experiencing homelessness — score much lower. The impact of the pandemic on young students’ reading skills is still unclear.

So far, more than 2,500 kids in Indiana have signed up to receive free books through Hoosiers Read.

Battaglia said the presence of books in a home are also correlated with academic achievement outcomes such as graduation rates. That's why he thinks it’s important to invest in kids now.

“If you're investing $1 in a kid in eighth grade, it's going to have less long-term impact on them than if you're investing $1 [ages] zero to five, when 90 percent of brain development is happening,” Battaglia said. “And so there's a huge ROI [return on investment] on early childhood that I think we're under investing in, from a state perspective.”

Partnering With Dolly Parton

Battaglia initially came up with the idea to provide free books to children in 2019 when he was part of the Mitch Daniels Leadership Fellowship, and was asked to pitch an idea to improve the state of Indiana. Hoosier Reads was the idea. Now, the group is working with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library to provide the books to kids across Indiana.

“I kind of joke that the answer to all big problems in life is Dolly Parton,” Battaglia said.

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library has provided free books across the world since 1995 and became statewide in Tennessee in 2004. In the United States, the program has been expanded statewide in states such as Ohio, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Delaware and North Carolina.

According to the Dollywood Foundation, kids in other states who were enrolled in the program for three to four years saw a 29 percent increase in kindergarten readiness. The Imagination Library also doubled its daily reading from 29 percent to 59 percent, and increased the number of kids reading three times a week from 60 percent to 85 percent.

The age-appropriate books — like the board book “Who Says Quack?” and Nancy Carlson’s “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!” — are chosen each year by what the Imagination Library refers to as a “Blue Ribbon Selection Committee” made up of professors, educators, parents and early learning specialists.

In a household with multiple children, a one-year-old would receive a different book than a five-year-old. Some of the books also have bilingual Spanish.

Program Access And Expansion

Although Dolly Parton's Imagination Library selects and ships the books to families, it’s up to local organizations, such as Hoosiers Read, to sign up students and find funding to support the program.

Hoosiers Read will make free books available for eligible kids in Marion County for the first time ever as they roll out the program one zip code at a time. In Indianapolis, the Minnie Hartmann Childcare Center and the Shepherd Community Center are providing five years worth of funding for the zip codes 46201, which includes parts of the near eastside and 46203, which includes Garfield Park and Fountain Square.

Outside of Marion County, a $1 million donation from CenterPoint Energy Foundation will also fund the program in Madison, Monroe, Vigo and Vanderburgh counties for five years. Hoosiers Read is providing access to the program county by county, with the goal of reaching five new counties by the end of the summer. This is in addition to the 44 counties that were already a part of the Imagination Library’s program.

Battaglia said about 19 percent of kids in Indiana already had access to the Imagination Library prior to forming Hoosiers Read, and about 20 percent of eligible children in the state were registered for the program. Just because a certain area offers the program, it doesn’t mean a lot of kids are signed up, or that the entire county has the program — it could just be specific zip codes in that county.

But with the help of Hoosiers Read, Battaglia hopes to increase the number of children who are registered.

“[It’s] kind of like one off — a library offers it here or United Way offers it here,” Battaglia said. “So our goal is to take that 19 percent to 100 percent. And kind of start it everywhere it's not, and then support it where it's already existing.”

But their ability to continue expanding the program depends on funding.

The Need For State Funding 

According to Battaglia, Hoosiers Read will pay $25 a year for each child from birth to age five to receive 12 books. That’s about $2 per book. But it will cost about $1 million each year just to provide this service in all of Marion County.

For now, Hoosiers Read will continue to work with individual and corporate partners. But Battaglia hopes the program will eventually receive some financial help from the state.

“Our real hope is, eventually, we'd love if the legislature got in the game and was willing to help us fund this like so many other states are doing because they see the [return on investment] long-term for economic prosperity of the state if there's higher literacy rates,” Battaglia said.

Battaglia hopes Hoosiers Read will be in all of Marion County by June 2022.

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at egabriel@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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