By Kim Walter
Two Shenandoah County elementary school teachers have teamed up to help promote literacy amongst local children.
Dana Conlon, a first grade teacher at W.W. Robinson Elementary School, and Susan Tusing, a kindergarten teacher at Ashby Lee Elementary School, heard about Dolly Parton's Imagination Library while working on their master's in reading education at James Madison University.
In their last semester, the teachers were required to work on a project to better literacy, and when they heard about the Imagination Library, "it was love at first sight."
The program, sponsored by the Dollywood Foundation, mails a brand new, age-appropriate book to enrolled children every month. Children can be enrolled from birth to age 5, and other than that, there are no other restrictions on who can receive books through the program.
Although the program is free to parents, the Shenandoah County chapter needed to raise funds to support it. Conlon said it costs $2.08 per child, per book, or $25 a year.
"We want parents to know that it is certainly free, but if they have funds available they can sponsor their own child or even pay for another child in the county," she said.
Based on 2010 census data, the women learned that there are around 2,500 eligible children in Shenandoah County. Thankfully, after writing a successful grant application, the project received $20,000 from the Moore Educational Trust. The amount, which they got in January, will allow the program to start on a solid foundation and support it for the first two years.
"It was amazing, we asked for $20,000 and we [got] the whole amount," Tusing said. The current funds will support up to 800 kids. However, if more eligible children register, the funding needed could rise to $40,000 per year.
The program premiered April 13 at the Children's Resource Fair, where 30 children were registered to start receiving their free books. As popularity grows for the county's chapter of the Imagination Library, the directors say they know they will continue to need financial support.
"We'll always be fundraising and writing grants," Conlon said. "That will never end, unless we can get some major sponsorships from local businesses and civic groups ... places that we hope will see the value in the program."
As teachers, the women know firsthand the value of early education, specifically focused on reading.
"I'm a kindergarten teacher, so one of my main concerns is that development of oral literacy," Tusing said. "Oral language is a precursor for literacy development ... kids need to be able to read, obviously, but they also need to be able to talk about a book and know about story structure."
She added that the vocabulary found in age-appropriate books, like those offered through the Imagination Library, couldn't necessarily be found in day-to-day interaction. In turn, that lack of vocabulary and literacy development can affect kindergarten students in middle school, Tusing said, adding up to a si-year different between them and their "up to speed" peers.
The first book the children will receive is a classic - "The Little Engine That Could." But from there, participants won't get any repeats, even among multiple siblings who are enrolled at the same time. Children will get a "graduation" book about entering kindergarten as their final one.
Research also suggests that children who live in print-rich environments and who are read to during their first years of life are more likely to read on schedule.
Additionally, to help parents be a part of the literacy development, many of the books feature questions and activities for before and after the story is read. The books come in different genres as well.
"I know there are definitely kids out there who do have books, but this is also about giving them something new, something to look forward to each month ... something they can call their own," Conlon said.
The women are hoping that more support for the program will come their way so that it can continue and expand. They said that any donation "no matter how big or small" can make a huge difference. The first shipment of books is expected this spring.
"I think we also just want our county's kids to have that love of reading," Tusing said. "This can impact so many children in that it gets them and their parents reading and discussing books in a whole new way."
Donations for Dolly Parton's Imagination Library: Shenandoah County Chapter can be written to the non-profit affiliate, the Shenandoah Education Foundation, located at 600 N. Main Street, Suite 200, Woodstock, VA 22664.
For other information, contact the directors at email@example.com.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org