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Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library helps to spread literacy

Multimillion-dollar vacation homes hug the ski trails of Okemo Mountain in southern Vermont, USA, but along this spine of the Green Mountains emerges a portrait of a wealth divide: Many nearby homes are rentals occupied by lower-income families. In the town of Ludlow, two-thirds of children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

"We were talking to the teachers about how prepared the children are when they arrive in kindergarten," says David C. Almond, a member of the Rotary Club of Ludlow and a retired partner at a major accounting firm. "They estimated that about half had never seen a book before."

That prompted Almond and the rest of the Ludlow club to help preschoolers develop literacy skills. They teamed up with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which every month provides free, age-appropriate books to children from birth to age five and has become a popular project among Rotary clubs in North America and the United Kingdom. The Imagination Library is a service partner of Rotary International.

"If the children are going to have hope, they're going to need books," says Brigid Sullivan, also a member of the Ludlow club.
Although teachers in Ludlow and the nearby towns of Mount Holly, Plymouth, and Cavendish were pleased with the literacy project, the Rotarians wanted to do more. But it took a chance encounter to expand their work.

Jim Alic, a retired media executive who serves as chairman of the Vermont Center for the Book, a group affiliated with the Library of Congress, recalls a dinner party where Almond was present. "He was describing the Imagination Library," Alic says. "I said, 'Hey, let's talk.'"

About a year earlier, the center, which primarily nurtures the talents of librarians and educators, had produced a series of six full-color workbooks on counting, patterns, maps, shapes, measuring, and sorting - skills that help lay the foundation for science, technology, engineering, and math. These, Almond says, are "the big needs in the United States to make us more competitive worldwide."

It didn't take much for Alic to convince Almond and other club members that the workbooks would dovetail perfectly with the Imagination Library program in local preschools and among parents of home-schooled children. "It caught David's imagination, and I got intrigued with Rotary because of the national and international reach," Alic says.

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The set of workbooks, called What's the Big Idea?, grew out of a project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. They retail for $14.95 each but are available to Rotary clubs for $36 per set of six. Each incorporates a popular picture book - among them Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins and Pattern Fish by Trudy Harris - on the companion CDs. In a departure from the traditional publishing model of strenuous copyright protection aimed at racking up sales, the photocopying of materials, printing of PDFs, and projection of book images are encouraged. "If teachers have one of these workbooks, they have the lesson plan. If they have eight kids, they can print out eight activity sheets," Almond says.

"It's not your typical paper-to-pencil workbook," says Shawn DuBois, an early-education teacher in the district. One mother of two preschoolers told her, "The workbooks you buy at the general store don't even compare."

The goal is "to make reading a transformational experience for young children," says Wendy Martin, associate director of the Vermont Center for the Book. "You can do everything under the sun with a picture book." As an example, she points to exercises that focus on spatial relationships. "Just taking a walk - 'I went around the corner' - teaches early geometry concepts."

That approach may be a first step in addressing shortcomings in the sciences among U.S. students, says Sullivan, who heard from a local manufacturer that some of his workers struggle to grasp basic mathematics. "Here a person who is hiring people is saying, 'Yes, we should be concerned.'"

With the new workbooks and the books from the Imagination Library, "children will do better in kindergarten and throughout their academic career," Almond says. "So we feel there's a big payback.''

Photos by Kim Lampert, Ludlow Rotary Club