I loved “The Cat in the Hat.”
Night after night, either my mother or father tucked me into bed and read to me the classic Dr. Seuss story.
And that makes me one of the lucky ones.
I had never thought of it that way until I attended a ReadingPals training at United Way of Escambia County. ReadingPals is a school-based program that matches adult mentors with prekindergarten children to help them build their language skills.
Research shows that language is the most critical factor in a child’s brain development. The words we hear, how many we hear, and how they are said, are important keys in helping children show up to school kindergarten ready.
And that’s something we need to work on in our community. Every year in Escambia County, a little more than a third of our children are not ready for kindergarten when they show up for their first day of school. Most of these children live in poverty, and many of them are a year to 18 months behind their classmates in terms of language skills.
I know there are lots of reasons for this, but something the ReadingPals folks shared with the two dozen people who showed up for training last week made me realize how important it is for parents to read to their children.
By the time a child from a middle-class family enters first grade, they have spent about a thousand hours with their parents or others reading a picture book. Children from low-income families average fewer than 100 hours of reading time with a parent or someone else.
Social scientists call this “Goodnight Moon” time, which is the amount of time parents spend reading to their children, and that’s why I’m one of the lucky ones. I got a lot of “Goodnight Moon” time as a kid.
It never occurred to me that the leading cause for the growing education and opportunity gap we’re seeing between rich kids and poor kids is tied to this gap in “Goodnight Moon” time.
Thanks to Mary Riker at WSRE, I learned about this the day after my ReadingPals training. Riker shared a link to a PBS interview with Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, the author of “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” WSRE is bringing Putnam to Pensacola in April.
The point that Putnam makes is that rather than spending millions of dollars on programs like FCAT, or billions of dollars on No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, we would be better off to invest in early learning. The key to closing the gap between rich kids and poor kids is to ensure more and more children are showing up for their first day of school kindergarten ready. And one of the best ways to do that is to encourage families to spend more reading time with their children.
The Putnam video (http://www.pbs.org/video/2365481514/) is worth watching because he makes a compelling case for investing in early learning. We have 23 million poor kids in this country, and it will cost taxpayers $7 trillion over the lifetime of these children if we don’t figure out a better way to prepare them for kindergarten and life.
ReadingPals is definitely worth your time. You don’t have to invest money. You just have to give your time. It’s a way to help more children in our community become the lucky ones. And to be honest, that’s about the smartest investment you can make, whether it’s your child or someone else’s.
Randy Hammer is the president of the Studer Community Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.