A head start on reading skills


A $59,000 grant in Baltimore County is expected to make it easier for parents and caregivers to give their preschoolers a head start on reading and will also provide them with activities through the county public library system.

The federal grant will be used by Baltimore County Public Library for a volunteer-based program called "Baby Boosters" that will reach out to preschoolers, their parents and caregivers in the community.

The project is part of a statewide move by public and private organizations to ensure that all children are ready to learn reading by age 5.

"Once kids are school age, there are a lot of things for them to do when it comes to reading," said Kathy Coster, marketing and programming manager for the county library. "But there is a scarcity of those activities for infants and preschoolers. We see ourselves as the preschooler's door to learning."

In addition to the reading programs for infants that the library already has, the program will use volunteers called "baby boosters" to promote reading readiness to the community.

The volunteers will teach parents and caregivers about the cognitive development of young children and the relationship between activities such as memory games and scholastic learning.

"I think that it is important that parents understand the importance of reading to their child and playing with their child. ... All of this develops social skills," Coster said.

Each volunteer, identified by Baby Booster hats, shirts and bags, will be assigned to a library branch and will meet with parents and caregivers and distribute information.

The library system is working to have at least 1,000 parents and caregivers attend a Baby Boosters program on how to promote reading readiness by July 2001.

Carol Haag, the coordinator of the retired and senior volunteer programs at the Baltimore County Department of Aging, will coordinate the Baby Booster volunteers.

"In our volunteer-screening process, we are looking for people who are comfortable working with little ones, that have had experience with children and can communicate and stimulate children," she said.

Haag said it is important to find volunteers who recognize the importance of getting children to expand their horizons.

Kepy Cyzyk, a retired reading specialist in the Baltimore County school system, and Lois Balcer, a Baltimore County master teacher, will help develop training for the volunteers who will present the program.

More than 12 people are interested in the program, Haag said. "I think that people really do see the need to help these little ones," she said. "These people want to be a part of the solution."

Volunteers are scheduled to start in November. Another group will be trained to present the Baby Boosters program in November.

Coster said the volunteers will also help the program reach a wide range of people and groups that otherwise may not be able to attend these sessions at a library. Baby Boosters will be assigned to different places in the community where they will conduct community meetings and give out information about the program.

Nurseries, day cares, churches and others "find it difficult to bring the groups to the library because of transportation problems," Coster said. "By having volunteers, this is a good way we can show what the library has to offer."

Through the program, large groups will be able to check out packages of 25 books - chosen by librarians and materials-selection staff - for three weeks and use them in sessions for preschoolers.

For those who are Internet-savvy, the Baby Boosters program will be interactive via the library system's Web site, www.bcplonline.org, which includes information about topics such as preschoolers' reading and health.

Organizers said they hope the program will encourage a deeper appreciation for the importance of reading preparation for preschoolers - and they've set specific goals.

By the time the program wraps up next year, coordinators hope that at least 90 percent of participants will respond that books and reading are important to children from infancy through 4 years old; that at least 75 percent of the parents and caregivers will know at least three activities that can help with cognitive development; and that at least 110 people per week will call up the Web site that will guide users to resources that address child care issues.

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