The Reading Is My Superpower program at Millard Public Schools provides families with reading activities they can practice with their children and allows families and home visitors a bigger say in book selection.
By Erin Duffy
The feedback from families is encouraging.
Given books to read to their young children by home visitors from Millard Public Schools, several parents have noted the engaging storylines, the diverse characters, and how their children can relate to what they see on the page.
“I love that my daughter can see another little girl that looks like her in this book,” one wrote about the picture book “Say Hello.”
“Oh, my girls are going to love this! Finally, a book that normalizes wearing a hijab…and our faith,” one parent remarked about “Mommy’s Khimar.”
Helen Evans, a home visitor at Sandoz Elementary School in Millard, has spent several years trying to improve the book options offered to families.
Home visitors like Evans connect families with school and community resources starting well before children formally enter school—some are babies, others 2 or 3 years old. At home visits, these educators and families work together to anticipate and monitor child development milestones, practice fine motor skills, and speak and read to their children.
The home visitation program is part of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan in the Omaha metro area. The plan is an ambitious effort by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties to close opportunity gaps among children that is supported by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.
Promoting family literacy is an important piece of the home visitation program, Evans said. Babies are like sponges, soaking up new words and mimicking the speech they hear. And reading can provide a quiet, relaxing time for parents and young children to bond.
But sometimes families need a little assistance and encouragement.
“Some families shared they didn’t have someone sit down to read (with them), or sitting down with my kids felt intimidating,” Evans said. “But facilitators can show how, or families can follow along with the facilitator or read along if literacy is a challenge for them.”
The home visitor program didn’t have a big budget for books, Evans said—often they’d buy in bulk and search for deals. Many of those books were primarily about animals, not people, and written only in English. Sandoz families speak several languages other than English, Evans said, with some hailing from Vietnam and Afghanistan.
“Families are saying, ‘I want to sit down and have my children see something that’s in the language we speak at home,’” Evans said.
And Evans wanted books for Millard’s youngest learners that included different characters, cultures, food, and holiday celebrations. She wanted options that went beyond depicting girls as princesses in need of rescue, and families wanted books that reflected their lives, showcasing blended families or a mom or dad in the military, for example.
“It stirred something up in me,” Evans said. “We can do better than this.”
That spurred the creation of Reading Is My Superpower, or RIMS. It provides families with reading activities they can practice with their children and allows families and home visitors a bigger say in book selection. Home visitors evaluate books with an eye toward inclusivity and respectful representation. Families are an integral part of RIMS, from offering book selections to providing feedback on what they liked or didn’t like about a particular book. The books and activities still align with Millard’s early childhood curriculum.
Molly Colling, a Buffett Institute program specialist who works with the home visitors, said the program allows for a true partnership and mutually beneficial relationship between families and schools.
“From my experience, families have shared that they have something to offer to the school, and really are instrumental in having some choice of what they want to offer for their children,” she said. “I think it’s elevated their voices, it’s elevated their confidence, and it’s helped school partners really be able to lean on families in implementing something new. They’re not an afterthought. They’re a part of it from the beginning.”
In February, families were invited to join a virtual family story time with author Minh Lê, whose books “Lift” and “Drawn Together” were distributed to families. While families received lots of links to online reading materials during the pandemic, they were clear that they wanted physical books they could hold in their hand, Evans said.
Reading Is My Superpower recently received a $6,000 grant from the United Way of the Midlands to purchase more books. Evans hopes the program will continue to introduce new books to families and instill young children with a lifelong love of reading.
Erin Duffy works at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.
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