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Baltimore Reads Executive Director Marlene C. McLaurin took over last month as head of the area's premier literacy organization.

McLaurin, 56, most recently was senior executive vice president of United Way of Central Maryland and interim chief operating officer of the Baltimore Urban League. A former second-grade teacher, she earned her bachelor's degree in elementary education from Hampton University in Virginia and her master's degree in early childhood education from Southern Connecticut State College.

As head of Baltimore Reads, McLaurin is in charge of a private, nonprofit organization with an annual budget of more than $4 million that runs literacy programs for children and adults throughout the Baltimore area. It has collected and distributed more than 500,000 books since 1992.

What is your view of the importance of early literacy, up to third grade?

Especially with the increased awareness and knowledge we have today about babies' early brain development ... communicating the sounds and words and music really has an impact on the healthy development of children. We know that literacy, learning, reading is really the window to the world for us as adults. ... The sooner and the earlier the better.

What do you see as Baltimore Reads' role in encouraging that, and can you address the specific programs that your organization has and how they help to that end?

Baltimore Reads has certainly been a leader, a catalyst to enhancing the availability of programs. ... [Overall] the goal is to raise the level of awareness and appreciation for literacy, its value in lifelong learning.

The Ripken Learning Center focuses on adults. There's a day program and an evening program. In each case, the outcome is increased learning with an eye toward linking it to employment and ultimately self-sufficiency. ... We've had a lot of success in the Ripken Learning Center program and will continue to grow that.

The other focus is on children. The Reading Edge is really the umbrella term to the children's programs. There was a new initiative last year, the Reading Zone, that piloted a model of recruiting and using volunteers in classrooms in elementary schools to work with children one-on-one. ... We are increasingly focused on partnering with city schools, with the elementary schools, to meet children where they are, one-on-one.

What philosophy and agenda do you bring to Baltimore Reads?

I guess it's a spiritual-based belief. This quality-of-life issue - reading, literacy, ability to learn - is kind of a prerequisite to being able to fulfill and effectively use the gifts that we've been given.

What changes have you seen in the literacy needs of young children, good or bad?

The world is closer in. The Internet, the technology age, and the fact that it's an information age - there's so much information coming in to our young children today. Fifty years ago, when I was beginning elementary school, I was exposed to what was presented to me at home. My life space was so much more narrow. Today, you can't control what kids are going to be exposed to, no matter how hard you try. With TV and media and peer pressure and technology and the Internet, there's so much coming at these kids that often they're emotionally unready to digest [it]. But if they're handicapped with respect to their ability to even read and comprehend English language, they're really going to ... in some respects be kind of up for grabs by almost any number of destructive forces.

How are local schools, institutions and even parents doing in meeting the early literacy needs?

I think we are somewhat behind in our awareness in getting the word out beyond the inner circle of professionals and providers. People that I know and talk to ... are all very aware of the value and importance of learning and the issues around illiteracy and public education. But it is really the outer circle ... the deeper in the neighborhood that we need to reach to get that word out. I guess the resources, the priority setting that has to be done by policy-makers, those in power ... those that make the big decisions, that's really ... behind the curve in terms of reality. There's more talk than walk. ... there's a mismatch between knowing what has to be done and having the will and determination to commit the necessary resources.

How many hours do you read in a month? How many books do you read in a year's time?

I don't have time to do ... pleasurable reading. I read more articles, more information related to management leadership, the issues affecting social welfare, academic social commentary, and I always read the paper every day. I guess in hours a week, I would say probably a minimum of 20. Pleasurable reading is probably my biggest frustration.

Does it bring a sadness to you to know there are some homes with no books in them?

That's exactly why Baltimore Reads is so vital. Because there's an intergenerational cycle that we've got to break. We've got to intervene in those cases where parents who have all the best of intentions, are working around the clock, some doing two and three jobs and totally devoted to their children, but their experience was not that of having books available to them and being read to, so it's like they just don't understand or appreciate [it]. In most cases, it's an economic factor to be considered. That's just not at the top of the list, to get books for their children. ... We've got to make sure that we're reaching those families and those children, and that access is not one of the barriers. Then it's relationship building and enhancing the support to families so that there's time and there's opportunity and there's appreciation. But I think it's a cycle that we have to break.

What about the closing of the libraries?

Libraries are really important to neighborhoods. They're like a safe haven for children and families ... a quiet place to share and learn about ... places and things that they will never really experience first-hand. ... There's too much riches in our immediate world for children and families to go without basic material needs, and as far as I'm concerned, books and the opportunity to learn to read are basic material needs. I think if we're creative about it and determined, we will find a way to keep them open. It is really important that there be libraries for everyone, but especially for poor children.

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