|Beverly Love-Wallace, a Ready to Learn worker at a public TV station in downstate Illinois, makes books come alive for kids by reading with dramatic flair.|
Scaled back but gung-ho...
Ready to Learn gets
ready to grow
Ready to Learn, the public television initiative to transform PBS's children's service into a tangible learning tool, rolls out in a very big way this month, extending its reach to 76.5 percent of U.S. households through broadcasts and outreach activities at 95 stations.
The project responds to the late educator Ernest Boyer's goal for the year 2000: that all American children enter elementary school "ready to learn." After modest beginnings as a pilot project at 11 stations in 1994, RTL grew to 44 stations reaching roughly half of U.S. homes last year. Its growth continues this fall with limited federal aid but considerable determination from local stations, PBS and CPB.
On screen, RTL stations air at least 6.5 hours a day of children's programs that meet specific curricular goals; off-screen, they have at least a part-time outreach coordinator and sometimes several full-time staffers to train child-care providers and parents in media literacy and educational uses of television.
"I jokingly say it's a ministry for me," says Jo Harlan, who developed the RTL service in Georgia during the project's pilot phase, a task that she acknowledges has its share of difficulties. Nevertheless, she's convinced RTL is sustainable. "Because it's timely, it's valued, it's accessible, and it makes sense, you can do it for a very long time."
"This is a magnificent way to let the community know what the difference is between commercial and public TV," says Kathy Smith, who coordinates RTL at WGTE, Toledo. "What makes us educational is not just the programs. We can say we do all this, too"--providing training and distributing books and other print materials.
Absent the mega-millions originally envisioned by congressional sponsors and planners at PBS and CPB, RTL nevertheless has taken root in urban and rural communities.
It hasn't been easy. RTL coordinators at local stations say they need more of everything--more money, more books, more materials, more hours in the day. Alice Cahn, director of PBS's children's programming, says that if she had the money and stations the airtime, she could develop a full-time children's service from the innumerable proposals by producers pounding on her door.
"There's an infinite amount we could do if we had the money to expand it," said Beth Kirsch, director of educational outreach at WGBH, Boston.
PBS's original vision for RTL in 1993 called for $72 million a year to pay for more programming and to provide for RTL coordinators at local stations.
That level of support simply has not materialized, even though educational children's programs and improved literacy are high on President Clinton's election-year agenda.
House budget-cutters have determinedly targeted the Administration's educational priorities, including RTL, for reductions. Over the past two years, Congress has provided about $7 million a year for the project through the Department of Education--after advocates overcame House attempts to defund it. As legislators wrap up their fiscal 1997 appropriations this month, pubcasters are looking to the project's Senate backers to restore funding for next year.
Aside from a $1.5 million grant from Apple, corporate underwriters with hard cash to commit to the full range of RTL services--programming, print materials and outreach--have been few and far between. Prior to the launch of RTL's pilot phase, EON Corp. contributed $1 million, primarily for break materials designed to promote learning and problem-solving skills. Public TV sought to raise $10 million for the pilot phases of RTL.
On the local level, stations have seen some success in generating support, although it's very difficult to quantify. Community foundations have aided RTL stations' distribution of free books in "a couple" of cities, according to Peggy O'Brien, CPB v.p. of education.
Alabama PTV recently received special funding from the state legislature to shift its classroom instructional programs to overnight broadcasts and become an RTL station this fall, as other stations have done. In addition, three private backers have contributed, although their initial donations were limited. "Everybody wants to see the impact before they can do more," noted Cindy Crowther, RTL coordinator.
Outreach specialists at pilot stations WGBH, Georgia PTV, and KTCA in the Twin Cities, say local fundraising efforts have brought in new funders or bigger grants from existing ones.
What has enabled RTL to continue to expand in this limited fundraising climate? Partnerships at the local and national levels.
In particular, First Book, a nonprofit literacy group with a mission to distribute books to underprivileged kids, has been a "godsend," according to PBS's Cahn.
"A cornerstone of our effort has been a focus on books and reading and literacy," said Kirsch. "It met with a really positive response having the First Books available. I think it has made the biggest difference for all the participants."
The First Book partnership has been "valuable above any cash amount that they could give," said Ann Sunwall, manager of community relations for KTCA. It has "solidified with a lot of people and organizations that I work with a true commitment to how this works."
Carolynn Reid-Wallace, CPB senior v.p., recruited First Book into the RTL effort in 1994, and the partnership has since distributed almost 500,000 books to needy children through stations. First Book itself donated about half those books, and CPB directly paid for the rest, according to Bradley Pine, executive director.
RTL stations place orders with First Book, a Washington-based charity that partners with Scholastic Inc. and a small publishing house to offer a catalog of some 3,000 titles, Pine says. Stations receive monthly allotments of 200-2,400 books per month--"depending on their needs and qualifications as a Ready to Learn station.'' The largest inventories go to the first RTL stations to partner with First Book.
"These books go directly into the hands of children who otherwise would not have a regular relationship with books," explains Sunwall. KTCA distributes some First Books in prison visiting rooms, where children "read a book with whoever they're visiting and take it home with them."
Station RTL coordinators say their ability to offer free books in training sessions and at special events has helped them reach more parents and child care workers. "It has added a lot of visibility to the Ready to Learn program," says Beverly Love-Wallace of WSIU, Carbondale. "It's really an extra feather in our cap to help promote what Ready to Learn is all about."
"The opportunity to go to a workshop and say, 'I've got free stuff for you, and it's good books' is the kind of substantive stuff that helps us do what we say our television programs do--lead kids to books," comments Cahn.
Train the trainers
Locally, stations have developed partnerships with child care agencies, Head Start programs, parenting groups, homeless shelters, and hospitals, among others. The shortage of resources has required them to offer their services to very specific populations. Even when they do, the demand can be overwhelming.
"Our biggest problem is trying to keep this manageable," said Crowther of Alabama PTV. "We have to work with a small enough group to be able to do what we say we're going to do."
The state pubcaster has partnered with child care resource networks in the state's four largest cities. These networks provide training to daycare workers. As in other places, the start-up strategy is to "train the trainers so we can make a bigger impact for the state." Local Junior Leagues also are major RTL partners in Alabama, providing volunteers and funding.
WBGH used this approach in targeting its RTL outreach to family child-care workers. These providers, who take kids into their own homes, have "the least access to professional development" and "are the most likely to use television, and not always in positive ways," explained Kirsch.
In its partnership with the Massachusetts Office for Children, WGBH advanced training for the trainers another step. Through a mentoring program, trained child-care providers receive a professional development credit for training others. The program includes a one-day workshop and follow-up sessions where "people talk about what they're doing and how it works."
"Family day care workers feel pretty isolated. This gives them an opportunity to get together with others, and that adds to people's enthusiasm and interest in the project," says Kirsch.
Early research commissioned by the Office of Children showed the program had achieved "fabulous results," says Kirsch. Trained child-care providers rated the content of the sessions "excellent," and indicated that they felt better about their jobs and the importance of their work. More than a quarter of the respondents said they were reading to the children in their care, who were in turn asking to be read to more often.
"It was a small survey, and it didn't sample parents or kids," said Kirsch. "But in terms of attitude or behavior changes, particularly with books, it's very encouraging."
The need for media literacy
RTL coordinators and outreach directors describe another obstacle to the program--media illiteracy. Some child-care providers and parents don't see differences between appropriate and inappropriate kinds of TV programs; others are skeptical that the tube can be used at all for children's benefit.
"A lot of people don't understand about entertaining programs on TV," said Love-Wallace. Many parents automatically think cartoons are for children. "A lot used to think Beavis and Butthead were okay for kids to watch."
"Media literacy is what we need," she adds, helping parents to "discern the difference between educational and entertaining."
Georgia PTV is among the stations that encountered initial resistance from child educators in developing the program. "At the very beginning, Head Start had a very bad taste in their mouth for using television in the centers," recalls Jo Harlan, who instead offered training to parents of Head Start children. Eventually, the centers "started to see the value of a limited amount of programs that were appropriate and had resources for follow-up activities."
Crowther heard a similar refrain in early meetings with child-care workers in Alabama: "'We don't use television in daycare and we're not sure this will ever work.'"
"Everybody brought it up in the beginning," she said. But after several meetings these concerns fade. "Somehow, we got over it pretty quickly."
Ready to Learn also has won over some nationally prominent education specialists. Becky Bailey, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Central Florida, acknowledges being very skeptical about RTL when she first learned about the program. She objects to TV content as violent and fear-based, and cites research that shows television's electro-magnetic rays and resolution "interfere with the developing child's brain" and "could create children with a short attention span."
Despite these concerns, she's become an advocate for the program, and speaks at training sessions. She recognizes the inescapable fact that TV is an entrenched part of modern life. "Ready to Learn is our first national initiative to harness the potential of this technology. It must be harnessed--it's out of control."
Web page posted Oct. 12, 1996, revised Aug. 15, 2004
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