Book Harvest’s Book Babies: Unleashing parent leadership at birth could lead to a lifetime of benefits

Note:  This article, by Mebane Rash, was originally published 11/22/2017 on Education NC (EdNC -Book Harvest’s Book Babies: Unleashing parent leadership at birth could lead to a lifetime of benefits ) and is republished below with permission.

“Not all kids go to sleep at night with a bedtime story,” says Ginger Young, the founder and executive director of Book Harvest in Durham, when Larry Colbourne of the Mebane Foundation and I visited her earlier this year. “And yet literacy begins with language.”

Young is imagining a new normal for newborns in Durham — and across our state and nation. It starts, she tells us, by unleashing parent leadership from birth. Both Young and Colbourne agree there is a “colossal failure” in our society between birth and grade three when so much of the brain develops, and both are investing in “coherent community strategies” to support these kids during this span of their lives.

Book Harvest started in Young’s garage back in 2011 where she collected donated books, premised on her belief in “the power of books to transform children’s lives.”

It begins with raising awareness so here is the pop quiz Young gives us:

Please fill in the two columns:

What percent of a child’s brain develops in the first three years of life?

Summer learning loss accounts for what percent of the income-based achievement gap?

What percent of a child’s life between the ages of 0 and 18 is spent in school?

What percent of our population are our children? What percent of our future are our children?

The answer to that last question is 100 percent. But income-based achievement gaps hold back too many of our children.

What if there was a way, wondered Young, to get any Medicaid-eligible baby kindergarten ready for $5,000? Book Harvest has several programs to promote literacy, but our visit focused on Book Babies.

Here is the basic idea:

Over five years, 120 new books + at least 12 home visits + a robust array of additional supports = a million words per year if a parent reads to their child for 15 minutes every day = kindergarten readiness

Book Babies is premised on this narrative: 1) you, the parents, are the experts; 2) we are here to support you on your journey; 3) your baby is capable of greatness; and 4) together we can make sure your child is kindergarten ready.

On the left, Meytal Barak, the team leader for Book Babies, talks to Manju Rajendran, a mother in the program who has a 17-month-old, Azadi. “Our kiddo,” Rajendran says, “she just got into it.” On the right, Young embraces the young mother.

Young tells us, “Authentic relationships. Trust. Showing up. Deep respect. It matters.”

Colbourne and I are both invited to go on a home visit. I visited this mom, Karen, her 2½-year-old Kayla and her 4-year-old brother Matthew. The mother does not have transportation so she is home bound during the day. Demonstrating the innate resourcefulness of parents, she covered an old pack-n-play to create a reading zone for Kayla. Barak’s excitement about this “micro-moment of brilliance” is palpable, confirming her belief that parents are the very best teachers for their children.

The Book Harvest staff is tenacious when it comes to making sure the home visits happen. They have a whole toolbox of ways to get them scheduled: text, phone, an alternate phone, email, driving by the home, and as a last resort the family’s pediatrician. They make the home visits happen on the family’s schedule not theirs, which often means they happen at night or on the weekends. This video unpacks the elements of each home visit:

Evaluations of the Book Babies program look promising. As excerpted from a report by Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy:

“…Book Babies children show advanced knowledge of emergent literacy skills such as print knowledge and phonological awareness. This finding demonstrates that the Book Babies program is successfully targeting the key early literacy skills…. Exposure to these skills is critical for kindergarten readiness, later reading ability, and future academic success. … The findings of this evaluation are both encouraging and exciting, as they indicate that the Book Babies intervention has unique potential to positively impact the literacy skills of Durham’s youngest children.”

The Center for Child and Family Policy is conducting a randomized control trial on cohorts of 180+ babies in 2017 and 2018 over five years to evaluate the Book Babies interventions and, if warranted, establish the evidence-base necessary to scale the program across North Carolina and beyond.

This Thanksgiving, engage a child in your life using the goals of Book Babies:

as you read, name objects, actions, and emotions;

let the child hold the book and turn the pages;

sit close to the child;

use an animated voice and expressions to engage and interest the child;

ask simple questions;

make everyday connections;

AND instead of screen time, have a conversation and play games with the child.

Perhaps you will enjoy it as much as the Book Babies parents:

“Each time, you teach me something different that motivates me more.”

“This program is something very beautiful.”

“I am very thankful, this has helped me a lot with my children.”

Young reminds us, “the stories we read to our children become their stories — touchstones that help children shape their identity and their sense of their place in a complicated world.”