Debbie Knuckles loads yet another box into the trunk of her car. She travels down a long and winding Bell County two-lane road to her final destination of the day—a birthday party. She comes bearing gifts for all the children.
Though the present comes in a modest, unassuming flat rectangular package, it is a gift more highly prized than even the latest games or clothes.
Knuckles gives the gift of literacy as the executive director of the Children’s Reading Foundation of Appalachia, Kentucky (CRFA). Every day, she looks for opportunities to spread the word about the importance of reading, to give parents and caregivers the tools they need to help their children succeed, and to put books into the hands of children—books like the ones in her box that she is getting ready to deliver to every child at the birthday party.
“We depend on our future readers,” she says. “Having a literate society means we have an educated voting force. Having a literate society means we survive.”
Knuckles is no stranger to literacy. She taught kindergarten for 27 years, worked with Reading Recovery to help those readers who needed a little extra boost, and kept sharing her love of learning even after she retired. She became co-director of the CRFA in January 2012 and, six months later, moved into the executive director position.
The Foundation is a 501(c)(3) program that has its roots more than 2,300 miles west of Kentucky.
In the Beginning Was the Word
In Washington State, about 20 years ago, the word was that high school dropout rates had become so high, they could be ignored no longer. A concerned group of citizens took a hard look at the situation. Students who were supposed to be graduating from high school couldn’t read, and they couldn’t write.
The group supposed it was the high school teachers’ fault. Yet, the high school teachers pointed to the middle school teachers, who in turn, pointed to the elementary school teachers. The elementary school teachers pointed to the kindergarten teachers, who threw their hands up in the air and said, “I got them this way.”
Salem Reiboldt, the outreach and development director at the CRF Headquarters in Kennewick, Washington, explained that the group discovered through this tracing backward process that when the kids came through the door, many of them already had a three- to five-year gap in their skills.
“You go back and say, ‘This is a function of society, so we aren’t going to blame this necessarily on Mom and Dad,’ ” Reiboldt says. “We decided we were going to look at the one thing that separates those who can and those who can’t in kindergarten. Those who understand and recognize letter names and sounds, and those who are ready to learn—they will make it. Those who can’t—those who are already five years behind—they won’t catch up. They have an 80 percent chance of dropping out of school.”
After more research, the group found that the biggest predictor of failure in kids was kindergarten readiness. The group members focused their energies on filling that gap from birth to 5 years and came up with a plan of action.
“If parents and caregivers read to their kids just 20 minutes a day, that one thing alone will dramatically increase their ability to learn and grow once they hit the school door. If they could do one more thing? That would be to play with their child,” Reiboldt says. “It’s about being intentional with kids.”
That intentionality grew into a structured program under the CRF umbrella called READY! for Kindergarten that works, whether it is applied to children in Kennewick or to children in the Appalachian region of Kentucky.
The Word in the Mountains
In Kentucky’s Appalachian region, the general adult reading level is fifth grade, lower than the national average reading level of eighth to ninth grade. And literacy is not just defined as the ability to read and write, Knuckles says; it also is defined as the ability to function daily with excellence within a reading and writing society.
The CRFA functions as a grassroots, hands-on program that can remedy the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, and a culture of complacency.
The CRFA was brought to southeastern Kentucky in 2010 by an Elgin Foundation Grant, which funded the CRFA chapter serving Clay, Laurel, Leslie and Bell counties. Over time, the counties serviced by the CRFA were modified to Bell County in Kentucky and Lee County in Virginia.
The initial funding enabled the CRFA to distribute materials and promote the importance of parents and caregivers taking the time to read to children for 20 minutes each day. This helped spread the main message of the Children’s Reading Foundation: “Encourage and educate families about their important role in raising a reader, support schools in assuring that students read on grade level by the end of the third grade, and facilitate community involvement in helping young readers be successful.”
The chapter applied for and received a competitive federal Innovative Approaches to Literacy Grant, which funds the initiatives READY! for Kindergarten and Summer Read Up: Stop the Summer Slide.
Virginia Payne, the national director of READY! for Kindergarten, helped to create a curriculum for the program that is applicable no matter the region. She says a friend of hers once said that kids are either learning or sleeping. Given that information, everything they do is a learning experience.
Knuckles agrees: “Children are born learning. The earlier we get to children, the better chance they have.”
Getting to children early means influencing their first and best teachers—their parents and caregivers. This is where READY! for Kindergarten comes into play.
READY! supplies parents with age-appropriate kits that contain items such as balls, blocks, puzzles and games, a whiteboard and marker, and a shopping pad to keep on the fridge. The kits are designed for children ages birth to 1, 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and 4 to 5 years old. Each of the kits is tied to 26 age-level target areas in language and literacy, math and reasoning, and social and emotional skills. A parent receives an age-level kit and attends three classes where a trained facilitator instructs the parents or caregivers in how to use each of the items.
“Imagine a parent rolling a ball back and forth with a child and talking to her. It seems so simple, but those are the things that are important. It is the vocabulary development,” Payne explains. “Even if a parent can’t read, they can tell the story of what is going on in the book in their own way.”
In Middlesboro, Knuckles has worked with Head Start teachers to focus on getting the word out to young parents. Teachers sent home letters, reminded parents and caregivers at every opportunity, and encouraged each family to sign a family contract stating they will read with their child for 20 minutes every day. This past spring, 37 families contracted to read to their children.
“We very specifically can watch those children’s test scores,” Knuckles says.
In addition to the READY! for Kindergarten program for younger children, Knuckles has teamed up with community partners to encourage the Summer Read Up: Stop the Summer Slide.
“This is a program designed primarily to do during June and July, during the off-school season. We go into the communities, set up at events, work through partnerships and libraries,” Knuckles explains. “It is designed to model how we read aloud to children and to get a good book into the hands of the children.”
To date, Knuckles and the CRFA have given away more than 30,000 books to children, and Knuckles looks for opportunities and partnerships within the community to give every child an opportunity not only to catch up, but to excel.
The Middlesboro Mall has given CRFA free office space. In Pineville, CRFA has partnered with the historic Bell Theater. At both partner locations, Knuckles knows she can make a real difference in the lives of children and in the life of her county. It is a difference that is difficult to establish in a culture of complacency.
“It’s not brain surgery, but it is brain science. Children have to be read to so that they know how to attack a word. The kids are already on a road, whether teachers or parents want to admit it. It’s about what they do before they walk in that door. That scares some parents. We are fighting a culture of parents who have said to me, ‘That’s your job. I don’t want them to have homework,’ ” she says. “And there is also the idea that their child doesn’t have to graduate from school. The parent didn’t graduate from school, and they say they are doing just fine. They are on government housing and food stamps, and the government is taking care of them. They have no dream for their child to be bigger than that.”
Knuckles also says she is fighting a culture of political correctness, where some people in the community don’t want to speak to high work ethics for students for fear of offending the parents or caregivers. It’s a culture that must change if the children of Appalachia are to survive and thrive.
“One of my favorite things is a poster that says, ‘If you aren’t part of the solution, you are the problem.’ I’ve always believed that. You can’t wait and sit there for other people to make things happen,” Knuckles says as she pauses and looks around her. This is the place where she was born and raised. It is her home, and she longs to bring purpose to her people. “I’m one, rolling up my sleeves and saying there is power in one person.”
Many Words for All
Across the nation, there are more than 20 chapters of the Children’s Reading Foundation and more than 130 READY! for Kindergarten programs. Still, 40-50 percent of children across the nation aren’t prepared to enter school.
“Until we invest as a nation, in our kids birth to 5, then we won’t see progress. We are loudly speaking to this,” says Payne. “We have to support our parents in those early years of birth to 5 in order to help their kids succeed.”
In the meantime, Debbie Knuckles and her team—everyone from the Middlesboro Mall, to the Main Street Pineville Program, to every Head Start teacher and librarian in all of Bell County—will look for opportunities to help parents and caregivers and kids alike succeed.
She closes the trunk of her car and mentally checks her calendar for the next day, the next week, and beyond. She smiles and nods. “I’m committed,” she says.
For more information on the Children’s Reading Foundation, visit readingfoundation.org. Q