RANCHESTER — During a drive back from visiting family in Colorado over winter break, Annie Griffin pondered ways to encourage young children to read.
Griffin, the Tongue River Elementary principal, mulled possibilities over with her husband who teaches at Tongue River Middle School. After several discussions with staff members, she ultimately decided to move forward with a new program called Project GIFT.
GIFT stands for “gifts that inspire family time in Tongue River” and is a literacy program that provides free books to kids from birth through kindergarten. The main idea involves parents reading with children before they go to school and then students continuing that literacy throughout their academic careers.
The initiative doesn’t officially begin until this fall, but different aspects have already started.
A few months ago, Griffin began working with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a national nonprofit that gives children a free book every month until age 5. The local WREN Foundation paid postage costs for delivery, and Griffin said nearly 30 students have already received book through the partnership. At TRE’s kindergarten screening last month, Griffin passed out books and Project GIFT backpacks to incoming students to take home this summer. Title 1 federal funding covers the cost of books once students begin kindergarten or Kinderboost. Griffin is also in the process of securing other grants and should know more about long-term funding within the next few weeks.
Moreover, when the program officially starts at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, Griffin will visit TRE Kinderboost students, the Tongue River Child’s Place and Tongue River preschool co-op once per month to read a book. The kids will take the book home and complete short quizzes with their parents.
Recordings of Griffin reading to Kinderboost students earlier this year are currently available on the Sheridan County School District 1 website as well. Griffin said those can serve as guides for parents not yet entirely comfortable reading out loud with their child.
She said enthusiasm is the most important thing when reading with a child. It is OK if a parent doesn’t pronounce every word correctly as long as they are excited to read with their child.
“We want to make those connections with families before they ever come here, and we want them to understand, ‘Before you’re ever at TRE, we love your child and we want them to be successful,’” Griffin said. “… It’s something that we know if we can help you feel success before you ever get here, your likelihood of having just a better life in general is increased.”
Griffin approached SCSD1 superintendent Pete Kilbride with the idea this winter and he wholeheartedly supported it.
Griffin and Kilbride called literacy the most important skill in education and best indicator of future academic and career success.
“Everything else we do requires you to be a more literate individual,” Kilbride said. “… It does transcend all content areas.”
Griffin presented information about the program Tuesday at the SCSD1 board meeting. Board chair Gary Reynolds complimented Griffin on her efforts and said it takes tremendous energy and vision to begin this type of program.
In addition to long-term professional benefits, Griffin said reading together has the potential to improve personal connections between parents and kids.
“If we can help facilitate great relationships with families … we can really just help set our students up for success,” Griffin said. “… I want to give them a beautiful treasure and to understand that reading is a huge thing, and it can really make your life better and your education life better.”
A few details are still being finalized, but the program will officially begin in the fall as a way to kickstart students’ path to literacy.