For the love of Reading
Rotary Program aimed at sparking interest in books in local youth
BY MARGIE RICHARDS
Jerry Coutant’s passion and enthusiasm for helping kids do well in school, and in life, is contagious.
Serving as a mentor, he and his wife Fern have put their time and money where their mouths are for a number of years, mentoring to kids who need a little extra help.
Now, Jerry, along with co-chairs Carol and Wayne Douglas, all members of the Rotary Club of Madison County, are embarking on a new program that they hope will help place books (one per month) in the households of children in the county, age newborn to kindergarten. They are doing this with the support of fellow Rotarians, the school system and donations from citizens.
Coutant said he has been astonished at the low graduation levels, and pointed to an Atlanta paper’s recent article stating that most kids in Atlanta-area schools don’t graduate. He has also noted that the results of the reading levels of third graders have been shown to be reliable predictors of whether a child will do well in school or not.
The program is the brainchild of Atlanta resident Robin Ferst, who in 1999 read a newspaper article that she said opened her eyes to the issues of childhood literacy. The article featured Dolly Parton’s “Imagination Library,” a program started in 1996 by Ms. Parton for Sevier County in her native Tennessee. The article explained how children registered in the Imagination Library received a free book each month until the age of five, paid for by Parton’s Dollywood Foundation.
For the first few years, the books were distributed only to these Tennessee children. But after reading about the program, Ms. Ferst formed the “Ferst Foundation” with the goal of offering the Imagination Library to all of Georgia’s children by 2010.
Now, Coutant and the Douglases have joined the effort to provide such a service to Madison County children.
“The literacy program is envisioned as having four phases or levels. It would begin with each newborn in the county receiving one book per month for the first five years of life and will progress to his/her beginning kindergarten,” Coutant said. “Since this is a five-year plan, we will have an idea of our influence on their reading levels, and of our success with this program through the reading readiness tests given on their entrance to kindergarten.”
Coutant says his research has shown that this literacy program has had excellent results in other counties.
The initial phase will be achieved with the help of the Ferst Foundation, which will send each child registered with the “Madison County Read at Home Program,” a book to his/her home every month by mail until their fifth birthday. Each child registered at birth will receive up to 60 books completely free; the cost of these books is $35 per year per child. The project will be paid for through grants, Rotary Club fundraising and donations, Coutant said.
To help achieve this, Coutant is “selling” one share of stock from the Rotary Club, for $36 per year, which will provide 12 books to a child in the county, one per month, for one year. Each gold piece of “stock” says, “the value of this stock grows as the child improves in reading skills.”
The second phase of the literacy program has been well underway for a while. The Dictionary Project is a not-for-profit organization that is providing free dictionaries to fifth and third graders in the county.
The third phase, Coutant explained, is to improve and expand the second grade reading project. In this project, Rotarians read with and to second graders for about an hour on at least a bi-weekly basis. Coutant said Rotary hopes to involve citizens and students from other clubs and organizations in the community.
Finally, the fourth phase of the program is to reward students for their reading accomplishments with incentives like books and gift cards to bookstores. Book titles will be from a pre-approved list from the school system, he noted.
An important facet of the program is that all children ages newborn to age five are eligible, regardless of income level. “It’s a win-win thing,” Coutant said.
Douglas said she first became interested in the program after serving as a literary coach, but gives Coutant the credit for getting the program off the ground.
“If Jerry hadn’t spearheaded it, we wouldn’t have gotten where we are,” Mrs. Douglas said. The effort has raised about $7,000 so far and the program has recently received 84 applications with the help of Madison County school system employee Carol Barnes. Douglas said Barnes has distributed the applications for the “Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy” to several local pre-schools.
And Douglas is adamant, as is Coutant, about not excluding any preschool age child, regardless of income level.
“I don’t care if their (family) makes $1 a month or $1 million a month, I just care that they have a book in their hands,” Douglas said. “And with these new applicants, we now feel like we’re going somewhere.”
Coutant is pleased to see the Rotary Club take on this project, and thinks it fits in nicely with the ramp-building project which has been going on for awhile. “I feel like the club is helping both ends of society, the most vulnerable among us,” he said.