Book Babies: School Readiness Begins at Birth

By Ginger Young, founder and executive director

This article originally ran in the Durham Herald-Sun on Sunday, July 19.

Baby Z is a vivacious 18-month-old. She recently moved with her mom and 10-year-old sister from a shelter to a neighborhood in which nearly half of all families live in poverty. In 2014, only 16 percent of the children at the nearby elementary school passed the end-of-grade reading test.

Z, alert and curious, may be the next great inventor or composer, doctor or professor. Instead, she is in danger of being a casualty of a system in which the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against her, stuck in a continuing cycle of limited resources and opportunities. Her vast potential is at risk of going unrealized, eclipsed by economic deprivation.

But Z may defy the odds with the help of one simple program: Book Babies. Every six months, Book Babies leader Natasha McCurley shows up at Z’s door bearing a basket brimming with 10 new books. Z’s mom invites Natasha in, and for the next 20 minutes, Natasha shows mother and daughter the books, modeling how to spark language development and early literacy skills. Natasha acts as a literacy success coach for Z and her mom, guided by the mom’s goals and wishes. The session ends with hugs and laughter. Natasha leaves the books for Z and her mom to keep for their very own, along with books for Z’s 10-year-old sister, a Goosebumps fan. These join the 20 board books that Natasha had brought on her two prior home visits, first when Z was a newborn and then when Z was learning to crawl.

Z and her family were referred to Book Babies by the nurse home visiting program Durham Connects. Through Book Babies, Z and her mom will continue to receive these home visits and book deliveries every six months until Z starts school in 2019. By then, Z will have received 12 home visits and 120 books. The goal: kindergarten readiness.

Book Babies, launched in 2013 by the Durham-based nonprofit Book Harvest, is unique in combining stacks of books with home visits starting at birth. The program now has a diverse group of 150 participating families in Durham, each with a Medicaid-eligible preschooler.

The program’s aim is ambitious and evidence-based: to close the kindergarten readiness gap, a chasm which is 27 percentage points wide (48 percent of poor children are school ready at age 5, versus 75 percent for their higher-income peers). Fully 80 percent of brain development happens in the first three years of life. And deficits begin accruing shockingly early: The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading reports that “as early as 18 months, low-income children begin to fall behind in vocabulary development and other skills critical for school success.”

Book Babies supplements its home visits with a menu of additional supports for parents, including monthly reading tips via text message, and, in partnership with Durham County Library, invitations to twice-yearly celebrations at its Stanford L. Warren branch. In August, Book Babies will kick off Saturday office hours at Warren, where volunteers will read to children, help parents sign up for library cards and pick out books, and share lnatasha and bbsiteracy strategies with parents.

Also launching in August will be an evaluation of Book Babies, conducted by research scientists from Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. It will assess both parent behaviors and emergent literacy skills of the first group of participating children, enrolled in 2013, as they turn 3.

Book Babies reaches two generations – both parents and children. “When I had a child, my respect for the families I work with grew exponentially,” says Natasha, a native Spanish speaker who has led the Book Babies program since its inception. “I reflect on life with my young son, which is challenging even with all of the family support and the monetary, emotional, educational, and social capital we have to help us along. Then I look at many of the parents we work with and the challenges that they manage on a daily basis – low wages, discrimination, health problems, inadequate housing, immigration status, racism, inadequate education — and I am humbled.”

Natasha continued, “I see Book Babies as a part of that essential support system that all parents need in order to fulfill their own goals of raising brilliant and thriving children. I see that potential every time I witness a parent and baby bonding over a book.”

Want to volunteer or learn more about Book Babies or other Book Harvest programs? Visit www.bookharvestnc.org or email ginger@bookharvestnc.org.