Benefits of Early Literacy: Waukegan, Illinois, Libraries Make a Difference

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By Ellyn Ruhlmann

"Eat with the spoon. Eat with the spoon."

Four-year-old Katalyna Padilla forms the words slowly, straining to pronounce each syllable clearly. She and twin sister Katrina attend one of six EPIC preschools sponsored by Waukegan Public School District 60. EPIC stands for Early Childhood Partners In Collaboration, an organization that provides no-cost preschool to Waukegan kids ages 3-5. Last year, Katalyna, who speaks English as a second language, was diagnosed with a speech disability during her preschool screening. She immediately began speech therapy with specialists at EPIC.

“Now we can understand her,” says Rita Padilla, Katalyna’s mother. “Before I had to go to one twin to ask what the other said.” Mother of eight, Padilla is an outspoken advocate for early childhood education. To her, the most important aspect is intervention. “If there’s a deficiency, it’s best to catch it early, so you can address it,” says Padilla.

Unfortunately, the majority of Waukegan kids slip under that radar. A 2006 United Way survey showed only 43% of children in Waukegan ever attend preschool. More often than not, they start public school having little or no exposure to books of any kind. That’s a handicap that can hobble these kids- not just in kindergarten- but up through high school and beyond, studies show.

Ripple Effect of Preschool
High/Scope Perry, one of the most comprehensive preschool studies, tracked a group of 123 participants from age 3 through age 40. Half attended a high-quality preschool; the other half received no preschool at all. The preschool group showed higher literacy scores and a higher high school graduation rate, especially for females. As adults, participants who attended preschool were more likely to be employed, earning a higher wage and requiring fewer social services than their no-preschool counterparts. The preschool group also had fewer arrests, and considerably less drug abuse.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have also determined that early education pays off for the community at a higher rate than later education, such as youth programs, adult education and job training. Skill begets skill; learning begets learning. Early disadvantage, if left untreated, leads to academic and social difficulties in later years, according to James J. Heckman and Dimitriy V. Masterov

This concept, that early education benefits (and deficiencies) tend to compound, is the cornerstone of programs like EPIC, United Ways Success by 6 and Head Start- all geared toward fostering school readiness. “I’m a true advocate for front-loading our kids with educational resources,” says Verna Wilson, principal of two EPIC preschools in Waukegan. “Nurture the kids, build their self confidence, and allow their leadership qualities to develop early for a big ROI [return on investment],” Wilson says.

Why Don’t Kids Go?
It doesn’t add up: If preschool is so important, and it’s available free in Waukegan, how come more than half the children never attend? Padilla thinks many parents don’t know about it, or feel their children are just too young for school. Other factors that play a role in the preschool decision are the mothers’ education level, family income and the language spoken at home. In the United Way study, 25% of the mothers had an eighth grade education or less, and 71% of the households earned under $32,000 a year.

Some say it’s a cultural barrier. Fully 77% of Waukegan kids surveyed spoke Spanish as their primary language, and Latinos are among the most underrepresented groups in preschool. According to Elena Shore from New America Media, that’s because Latino parents feel reluctant to leave their kids in the care of strangers. If they need childcare, Latinos usually leave their little ones with family members.

“Whichever the reason, the upshot is: Too many Waukegan kids start school unprepared. I was astounded by the percentages [from the United Way Survey],” says Richard Lee, Executive Director of the Waukegan Public Library. “Looking at those deficiencies, we decided to set some measurable goals.” Lee and the library Board of Directors decided to offer an alternative to preschool, something less formalized that would appeal to all residents- especially Latinos- to help fill Waukegan’s early literacy chasm.

Public Library Takes a Lead
In July 2007, the Waukegan Public Library broke ground on its Early Learning Center (ELC), a $300,000 cutting-edge facility featuring interactive, bilingual displays and programs for Waukegan’s youngest learners. School District 60 helped the library design Story Camps that Early Learning Specialists will offer at no cost, in both English and Spanish, Monday through Thursday

Like the state-funded preschools, these camps will follow the curriculum issued by the Illinois State Board of Education, using stories, songs, and a learning activity such as rhyming. Unlike the state-funded preschools, ELC camps will welcome parents as participators in the learning activities. In this way, the library hopes to appeal to those families, particularly Latinos, who avoid preschool because they feel their kids are too young to leave with strangers.

And camps are only part of the appeal. Sprawling 2,200 square feet, the ELC is filled with bells and whistles, colorful displays and whirling mobiles- the kind of sensory buffet you’d expect from a children’s museum. Kids can become painters and sculptors in the art center, or mad scientists concocting potions in a lab; they can take up drumming and strumming in the sound studio, or work as paleontologists on a big dig in the nature area. Or, they might climb on the pretend play stage and pull from a whole trunk load of disguises, morphing into anyone they choose: queen, cop, dog catcher, maybe a librarian.

Value of Imaginative Play
New research shows this kind of freewheeling, make-believe play helps build a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function is an essential skill for kids to master because it enables them to self-regulate- to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert discipline. In short, kids with good executive function focus better. And when you focus better, learning is easier. That’s why a child’s executive function is actually a better predictor of school success than her IQ, says researcher Laura Berk.

Activities like video games and TV, even guitar and karate lessons, all inhibit imaginative play (and executive function) because they don’t give kids a chance to police themselves. That doesn’t mean they have to hang up the karate belt. What child development specialists recommend is, like so many things, finding a balance. Give kids structured time like lessons or preschool, but temper it with plenty of free play, with space to roam and variety of props to set imaginations rambling about, too.

Can a facility like the ELC help solve Waukegan’s kindergarten readiness problem? Certainly not on its own. The library will not offer preschool screenings, which can help flag speech and learning disabilities that require early intervention. Left unchecked until kindergarten, a speech disability like Katalyna’s grows much more difficult to overcome. The ELC can serve as a link, however, between prospective families and area preschools that perform screenings. Each spring, the library plans to host a preschool fair to help promote Waukegan’s easy access to a free, high-quality pre-K education.

There’s only so much a parent can do at home,” says Padilla. Now, she and other Waukegan parents have other thresholds to cross- places to go to nourish young minds, and eventually, help sway the statistics.

United Way Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, September 2006 Findings in Waukegan
Verna Wilson, Principal, EPIC
High/Scope Perry Preschool Study
Making Cities Stronger (2007), Urban Libraries Council
Are Latino Children Missing Out on Preschool? by Elena Shore
Richard Lee, Executive Director, Waukegan Public Library
Early Learning Center, Waukegan Public Library
Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control, Morning Edition, NPR (2/28/08)
Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills, Morning Edition, NPR (2/21/08)
Brain Play: Why Preschoolers Need to Pretend, by Jan Faull, (2008)