“This is a program that really can change illiteracy challenges in Spalding County, as it has in 69 other Georgia counties,” said Louisa Melton, who heads up the Spalding County Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy. It is in surrounding counties including Fayette, Henry and Lamar counties, she said.
Melton, a retired educator and former director of the school system’s pre-kindergarten and English as a Second Language programs, spoke the Rotary Club of Griffin Thursday. The local Ferst Foundation is asking for donations to provide books to children from birth to age 5 in Spalding County, she said. “as a proactive effort to overcome illiteracy.”
Melton said she has seen illiteracy “run rampant in Spalding County since she began teaching in 1974 at Northside Elementary. We are seeing it across the board, all socio-economic groups, in language-poor homes.”
The Ferst Foundation began in Madison County by Robin Ferst, who found out children were struggling with literacy in poor homes, Melton said. When it first began, 45 percent of children were ready to learn when they reached kindergarten in Madison County, “but by the third year of the program, 80 percent were ready.”
In 2011, Melton said, the CRCT scores for 99 percent of eighth-graders who began in this program were at meets or exceeds.
Melton explained the rationale to giving books to children at an early age.
The ages from birth to 5 are the most important years of learning for children. They develop much of their capacity to learn from birth to age 3 when their core brain structure grows to 85 percent of their adult size.
By age 5, she said, when they start kindergarten, they should have developed the necessary communication skills need for learning success.
“This means children who are raised in language-poor homes, having never been read to, begin school five years behind children who come from language-rich homes,” Melton said. “This lack of knowledge makes it difficult for these children to learn. They are at a disadvantage that can’t be made up.”
In Spalding County, according to the latest census, Melton said, there are more than 4,600 children under the age of five, 23 percent of them live below poverty level and 61 percent of those families have no reading material suitable for children in the home.
“This is the fourth generation of this (illiteracy) in Griffin, and parents who don’t understand how to even teach their children to read,” she said.
The goal is to get books in the homes of Spalding County children from birth to age 5, so they can be prepared to learn when entering kindergarten.
“The best case scenario — if the parent gets involves and reads to the child, if the child gets a book each month, is read to for 30 minutes a day from birth to age 5, the child gets 900 hours of reading,” Melton said.
The second best scenario, she said, “is the child gets the books and there’s a brother or sister or aunt or cousin, somebody willing to read to them.”
The worst case, she said, is “the child gets the book in his or her name, is excited, opens it up, gets the concepts of right and left, pictures and the association with words, even if no one reads it to them. But who can refuse a child when they come up to you with a book saying ‘read to me’?”
She explained the cost is free to parents, and applications are in various locations including the library, doctors’ offices, family services and other agencies. Melton is asking clubs and individuals to donate to pay for the expenses.
It costs $28 per year to provide one book a month from birth to age 5, a monthly county newsletter for the parents, a parent’s guide with tips for reading with their child, and suggested age-appropriate books available at the Flint River Regional Library.
This is the first year for the program in Spalding County, with the local chapter starting back in October.
“We will get baseline data this year,and in three years I can show you how much this works,” Melton said.
All of the donations in Spalding County stay in Spalding County, she said and are tax deductible.
More information on the Spalding County Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy is available on its website at spaldingcountyferstfoundation.org.