Belinda Outwater, University of North Carolina Greensboro
Innovation: Early Literacy Community Partnerships


Problem Statement:

Children’s learning foundations are established during the first five years of life. Children living in economically challenged communities often have very few or no books in their home. Without books, children have less learning opportunities before starting school and often enter Kindergarten knowing very little of the alphabet and with a limited vocabulary of 400-600 words. Children who come from literacy-rich home backgrounds enter school knowing the alphabet and with a vocabulary of 1400-1600 words. At age five, this is a huge gap to overcome, and it widens with each summer slide. Children who cannot read at grade-level by the third grade are four times less likely to graduate than their peers.

Research confirms that during the first 3 years of a child’s life their brain triples in size and by age 5 the child has acquired 90% of his adult brain size. From infancy to age 5, the child’s learning foundation is established, so an enriched environment of talking, reading, and positively interacting with children is crucial for their brain development. Differences in a child’s vocabulary are directly correlated to their parent’s education level and income. By three years of age, a child from a college educated family knows roughly 1200 words while children with working class parents and welfare parents know only 600 and 400 words respectively. Children from low –income households are less prepared for school, and at age 5, this is a huge gap to overcome and it widens with each summer slide. Children who cannot read at grade-level by the third grade are statistically four times less likely to graduate than their peers, but when school performance gaps are closed, individuals can benefit from higher lifetime earnings, communities can gain from reduced social costs, and state economies can experience higher rates of economic growth.
The most successful way to improve the literacy of low-income children is to increase their access to age appropriate books. 61% of low-income American families do not have any age appropriate books in their home. Middle-income families have on average 13 books per child in each home, and low-income neighborhoods have an average of 1 book per 300 children. We believe modeling early literacy skills and having age appropriate books in the home is necessary for each stage of a child’s literacy development.


An innovative way to improve early literacy skills in children ages birth to five is by promoting language nutrition with more talking, reading, and interacting with children and by providing free access to age-appropriate books. Realizing that childhood literacy is an indicator of future learning abilities and success rates, we need to work to make books more accessible to low-income families and increase awareness of free public library services and materials. By tying together book ownership and increased access to library cards, we can stimulate the literacy levels of low-income children in our communities.

The Barrow Book Partnership was born through a unique partnership of several community organizations with a common goal – to see more children succeed in school. There are many members in this effort to increase literacy rates among children ages birth to five in Barrow County. Partners in the Barrow Book Partnership have equal responsibility in gathering community support, seeking funding, and media outreach and marketing. Barrow Family Connection is responsible for our monthly newsletters for parents. The Barrow Community Foundation, a local non-profit agency, manages our donations. Piedmont Regional Library provides staffing for the WIC classes, coordinates meetings and book orders as well as collects statistical data, and manages multiple social media accounts for outreach and awareness. The Barrow County School System works to coordinate all efforts and provides outreach to businesses and non-profits regarding our project. The BBP Committee currently consists of more than twenty-five Barrow partners and other community stakeholders. Library staff who execute story times and issue library cards have a minimum of a four-year college degree. Many library staff also have a Masters in Library Science from an accredited American Library Association institution. Participating school staff have at least a four-year college degree, with a myriad of advanced education degrees ranging from multiple masters to doctorates.

Our efforts target the parents & caregivers of children birth to age five who are:
• Served in the health department’s W.I.C. (Women, Infants & Children) program (over 1,000/year)
• Participants in Barrow County School’s Child Find Program (children with developmental delays)
• Pre-K lottery applicants (approximately 650 children annually)
• Registering for kindergarten (800-1000 students)
• Patients at Medlink Winder and Barrow Pediatrics
• Barrow foster children

We serve these populations in various ways. Barrow County Health Department’s WIC Nutrition classes and participants (parents of children ages newborn-age 5) must attend nutrition classes every three months to receive vouchers. We combine food and nutrition classes with language nutrition. We schedule library staff and volunteers at the WIC classes at our local health department weekly, who model and advocate early literacy skill development and engage families in story times. It is important to give books to families while also educating them about the wealth of books and resources in our public libraries. During each quarterly WIC class, children are given free age-appropriate books to keep at home; older children are also encouraged to choose a book from the book nook (of donated books) to keep at home. Over 1,000 donated books have been picked up from this nook. In addition, the family is given an opportunity to sign up for a free public library card and given additional information about other community partners and agencies. The free age-appropriate books begin the child’s home library, and the extensive resources of the public libraries enhance the child’s cognitive development. The school system Child Find coordinator meets with parents during intake for library card sign up and book distribution. We distribute two books to each foster child in Barrow County along with a PINES library card information sheet twice a year. We provide books to each child registering for the Pre-K lottery. When the students are chosen for Pre-K placement, those 374 students along with the hundreds of students entering Kindergarten are given free books during the registration process. Children undergoing annual check-ups at Barrow Pediatrics and Winder Medlink are given a new, age-appropriate book at the appointment along with library information.

The Barrow Book Partnership began through the combined, passionate efforts of a group of community partners as a new model for promoting early literacy development for Barrow County’s low-income population of children. Since its inception, it has distributed over 11,000 free, age-appropriate books to local children and their families, and registered over 1,000 individuals for free library cards, giving access to a wealth of literacy-based services and programs. We will provide more impact by providing more books. We will increase awareness in the community of the many services that become available with a free public library card. By doing so, we fulfill the mission of Piedmont Regional Library System: “To provide services and materials which will empower people, raise their aspirations, enhance their employability, and build active citizenship and quality of life in the community”.

This partnership can easily be replicated in any community. Every county or region has a library system, a school system, and a health department. Drawing in other partners only takes vision and passion. Our partnership is funded entirely through grants and donations, so lack of funds or tiny budgets should not be a factor. Any community could band together in this format we have created, all tackling the same issues at the same time in the same way, ultimately not only solving the symptoms, but eradicating the problem completely.