Raising Readers initiative: Ready to Learn goes for depth instead of breadth

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In 20 cities across the country, stations are organizing Super Why! reading camps, hosting book-centric sporting events and concerts and handing out Super Why! and WordWorld DVDs at YMCAs and grocery stores as part of Raising Readers, the new face of pubTV’s Ready to Learn outreach efforts.

Alabama Public Television is working with little readers, pictured here at a Birmingham station event hosted by Arthur. (Photo: Alabama PTV.)

The five-year initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Education to help low-income preschoolers hone their reading skills, began rolling out at 10 stations in January.

In April, PBS and CPB announced 10 more stations that would receive Raising Readers outreach grants. Compared to the 20 stations involved, the previous Ready to Learn outreach effort spread money to 140 stations — most of the 168 PBS member licensees.

The new campaign is more about depth than breadth, says Sharon Philippart, who heads up Raising Readers for PBS. The Department of Education decided in 2005 to narrow the focus of pubTV’s Ready to Learn efforts from general school readiness to reading readiness. The feds gave notice that they expected clear results, so the grant program concentrated its resources further, resulting in larger grants to fewer stations.

To ease the shock of lost grant money for stations that had counted on aid to pay for RTL salaries and activities, 122 stations have had three-year transitional literacy education grants from CPB, with the expectation they would cultivate new funding sources in their communities. That transitional aid ends in September.

Raising Readers stations — most of which also received these transitional grants — will receive $40,000 a year to partner with educators and community organizations to distribute educational materials and produce local literacy activities. The grants to stations are phased in, so some will have five years of funding and others will start later and have four or three years.

To choose the 20 stations, CPB and PBS looked at the demographics, family income levels and reading scores of the communities they serve, says Jayne James, executive director of the Ready to Learn initiative for CPB. To receive grants, the stations needed a record of educational leadership in their communities. (See list of selected stations and their grants below.)

Each grantee station, in turn, is focusing its effort on at-need areas in several ZIP codes covering more than 150,000 households. To help choose the areas, stations had access to regional data from the American Institutes for Research.

The campaign is built around the PBS Kids broadcast programs that absorb most of the federal RTL money — $20 million a year, compared with $4 million a year for station outreach.

The programs — Between the Lions, Sesame Street, Super Why!, WordWorld and the soon-to-debut Martha Speaks and Electric Company — and related learning materials are based on the National Reading Panel’s recommendations about the building-block skills needed for literacy, such as knowing letters and recognizing phonemes. PBS has also built an online amusement park, PBS Kids Island, where kids can play games based on the programs. (For a chart describing which RTL shows focus on which reading skills, see PBS’s Literacy Framework chart.)

Raising Readers’ not only concentrates resources on kids who especially need help but also focuses on local partner organizations who already know what local kids need and how to reach them, such as local affiliates of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Childcare Resource & Referral Agencies.

Going wherever kids learn

In Alabama Public Television’s long history of statewide education outreach work, it has sought partners “wherever learning occurs,” says Education Director Nancy Hill—churches, libraries, and other community gathering spots, in addition to state-funded pre-K programs. As part of their Raising Readers efforts, APT is focusing more specifically on high-needs students in six of Birmingham city schools’ pre-K programs, with funding help from the Community Foundation of Birmingham.

A big part of the Raising Readers effort at APT and other stations will be getting materials to kids, parents and teachers and spreading the word about resources and local events. APT introduced the project with a Governor’s mansion event featuring Elmo and first lady Patsy Riley. And PBS recently sent several people to Alabama to do a social marketing campaign, handing out DVDs and tip sheets in grocery stores, libraries, the YMCA and Dollar General stores in the targeted ZIP code areas. Most kids recognize the characters from Word World and Super Why!, says Hill. After the success of the street marketing, she hopes to maintain relationships with participating businesses and organizations.

PBS has distributed about 330,000 DVDs through stations and child advocacy organizations so far. The discs include an introduction by PBS Kids’ host Miss Rosa in English and Spanish and several episodes of Word World and Super Why! The Raising Readers activity book, created by producers and overseen by a curriculum specialist at PBS, features word games — in English and Spanish — peppered with characters from RTL shows. Stations will also be creating their own activities and materials, says Philippart.

Grantee WHUT, Howard University’s station in Washington, D.C., and a newcomer to RTL funding, deployed staff members to deliver DVDs and activity books to schools, churches, daycare centers and other service organizations in areas where poverty is high and where English is a second language for much of the population. The response from most partner service agencies is “You’re thinking of us? This is awesome!” says Diane Robertson, WHUT’s director of broadcast services. Most will take all the help they can get, she says. The station also held focus groups with parents, teachers and caregivers connected to these organizations to find out how to best serve kids and families.

PBS and stations have also partnered with businesses. For a recent media campaign in ten markets, PBS and CPB bought spots on commercial radio stations serving key communities, including announcements in Spanish on Latino radio stations. The radio stations received the project enthusiastically, creating a “thriving new relationship,” says James. In Birmingham, for example, R&B station 107.7 FM is promoting Raising Readers at its free summer concerts in the park.

In Toledo, WGTE recently hosted a PBS Kids Raising Readers day with the Mud Hens, the area’s minor league baseball team, for kids and their families in the target zip codes. On the field, costumed characters from Super Why! and WordGirl presented books to Muddy and Mudonna, the teams’ mascot fowl.

But the star of Raising Readers thus far appears to the Super Why! day camps, created by the show’s producers and run by stations. PBS and CPB piloted six camps last year and found through testing that kids significantly improved their reading skills after three hours of word activities a day for five days. Raising Readers stations will host 34 camps in 19 markets this year, amounting to about 700 wee readers who need a boost with their pre-K learning. Devoting each day to one TV episode and one “super-reading” skill each day—such as Alpha Pig’s letter recognition—a Super Why! day camp wraps up with a “Super You” celebration with parents and caregivers.

Roles for parents and caregivers

Raising Readers is trying to equip these parents and caregivers with tools to help their children. A station handout suggests easy-to-execute games such as “Find the first letter of your child’s name at home, in the car or on the bus” and “Rhyme words with your child.”

For childcare providers who may not have a background in education, PBS and CPB have created an online professional development course, available through the PBS TeacherLine site (PBS.org/teacherline). Such mini-courses, often grad level, have been geared toward teachers, Philippart notes, but this class teaches how to set up a childcare center for literacy and use media with kids.

When PBS piloted the course at Maryland Public Television, in partnership with the state’s early childhood-focused Judy Centers, many of the 91 participants had no e-mail address and had never been online, Philippart says. Each Raising Reader station will get a certain number of free classes to offer childcare providers in their community, she says, and PBS will develop two more of these classes.

To find out whether this guidance and the Raising Readers’ materials and events actually help kids learn to read, CPB is fielding 60 studies across all the Raising Readers markets.

The studies also focus broadly on how media can help kids learn and how kids from high-poverty situations learn — giving feedback to help pubcasters tweak their instructional materials. The American Institutes for Research is also tabulating response cards sent in by parents and caretakers who received the campaign’s DVD and activity book. The cards ask how many times kids watched the DVD or used the book and whether adults logged on to the Raising Readers website for more resources.

“We need to know we’re making an impact,” says James.

Stations funded for 3, 4 or 5 years

Funded for five years from the first fiscal year (2006) through 2010: $40,000 per year, totaling $200,000 for the life of the grant
MPT – Baltimore, Md.
MPB – Jackson, Miss.
KLRN – San Antonio, Texas
KQED – San Francisco
WGTE – Toledo, Ohio

Funded for four years
from the second fiscal year (2007) through 2010: $40,000 per year, totaling $160,000 for the life of the grant
APT – Birmingham, Ala.
WNED – Buffalo, N.Y.
WSIU – Carbondale, Ill.
KPBS – San Diego, Calif.
WPSU – State College, Pa.

Funded for three years
from the third fiscal year (2008) through 2010: $40,000 per year, totaling $120,000 for the life of the grant
LPB – Baton Rouge, La.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting – Charleston
IPTV – Johnston, Iowa
WHRO – Hampton Roads Va,
WJLT – Jackson, Tenn.
WNPT – Nashville, Tenn.
WSRE – Pensacola, Fla.
KAET – Phoenix, Ariz.
WFSU – Tallahassee, Fla.
WHUT – Washington, D.C.

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