Tormohlen: The importance of early language skills
August 23, 2016
Recently we've devoted this column to individuals working to effect positive change in the Aspen-to-Parachute region. This week we're speaking with Rick Blauvelt, executive director of Raising a Reader, a Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit that supports early language and brain development among children from birth to age 5.
Blauvelt has spent nearly 20 years in the nonprofit world, mostly working with and for at-risk kids on Colorado's Front Range. He moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2008 after sitting in one too many traffic jams while trying to ski, camp or hike. He joined Raising a Reader in the spring of 2009, owing to a strong belief in early-childhood education as a way to prepare kids for success in school and life.
Aspen Community Foundation: What was the original impetus for Raising a Reader? Please give us a short history.
Rick Blauvelt: Jayne Poss, a longtime Aspenite, founded the organization in 2004 when she learned that approximately one-third of children both locally and in Colorado enter kindergarten without the oral language skills, vocabulary or print awareness necessary to successfully begin the learn-to-read process. Low-income children can enter school up to two years behind their peers if they don't receive enough language and positive verbal engagement at home. The first five years of life are critical to the language and social-emotional development that form the brain foundation for all future learning. Our work is directed at families — to provide storybooks and help parents improve the home-based reading and parent-child interactions that ensure healthy language development and love of learning. Raising a Reader is a national model developed with input from Stanford University researchers that we have adapted to serve the Aspen-to-Parachute region.
ACF: Who are your clients/customers, and where do they live?
RB: First and foremost, this is a parent-engagement program. We provide parents with tools — books, knowledge and motivation — to help enrich their children. Every week, 2,100 children from 115 classrooms receive a bright-red book bag with four books to share with their families. They keep the books for a week, then return them for another set every week from September to May. We also host 60 meetings per year where parents can share successful strategies and learn about the brain science that informs our work.
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We work with preschools in nearly all elementary schools from Aspen to Parachute and also Head Start, Early Head Start, the Yampah Mountain High School teen parent program, Preschool on Wheels and many private providers. We prioritize the classrooms that serve a significant number of at-risk children, but once that classroom is included, every child in the classroom participates.
ACF: How do you measure success?
RB: We survey our parents before and after the program each year, and they provide information about reading and verbal engagement in their homes. These surveys show major improvements in days per week with read-aloud sessions, frequency of child requests for read-aloud sessions, library visits and other measures. Additionally, schools provide data on the success of Raising a Reader children. In a recent partnership with Crystal River Elementary in Carbondale and Aspen Community Foundation's Cradle to Career Initiative, Raising a Reader helped to expand book bags into kindergarten classrooms, provide home visits to the highest-risk children, add parent mentors to classrooms and double the number of parent events. The percentage of kindergartners placed in the "intensive intervention" category fell from 57 percent in the fall to 14 percent by spring. As a result, Roaring Fork School District asked us to replicate the model this fall at Glenwood Springs Elementary.
ACF: What's next for Raising a Reader? Are there changes afoot?
RB: Recently we've started a program called RAR Outreach to find and connect with low-income families whose children aren't in preschool or formalized day care. These are the kids who are most at risk. With the help of other human-service organizations, we identify these families and invite them to a weekly meeting at a local school, church or library. Typically the moms and their children show up for a story, an activity and a conversation about reading and positive verbal engagement at home. Then we send them home with a weekly book bag. This is a stopgap effort, but local kindergarten teachers tell us they notice a difference and that these children come to school better prepared. We now have RAR Outreach cohorts meeting weekly in seven communities.
We also plan to step up our electronic communication to provide parents with useful information and encouragement. We find that little reminders — text messages, e-newsletters — about reading and engaging children can be meaningful, especially for parents whose schedules make it hard to attend our parent nights.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.
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