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Rochester Education Foundation brings international literacy program to Rochester

Child with book
Photo by William Fortunato
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The Rochester Education Foundation recently launched a pilot program to support early education for children living in Rochester.
The Dolly Parton Imagination Library is a monthly book gift program for children up to age 5, started by its country singer namesake over 25 years ago.

The program was rolled out last year in the 14605 ZIP code. With a median annual income of about $22,000, it’s one of the poorest ZIP codes in Rochester.

Pediatric physician Matthew Present is leading the effort. He said the 14605 ZIP code has a large population of pediatric patients he he has access to, which made it ideal to enroll families.

"[This ZIP code] really kind of fit the bill as both an area that has a lot of resources in terms of really great community organizations that we could work with and then also ... a high need,” Present said.

He said early childhood education is essential and the program is a resource that provides equity in education disparities that are often present low-income communities.

"By the time kids reach age 2, in higher-income circles, their vocabulary is about 50% larger than children who are in lower-income circles,” said Present. “Their processing speed is quicker. It's about six months ahead."

Present said apps and other digital learning tools are useful, but books still serve an important role in early child development.

“This sort of call and response, the interactivity, the slower pace that's probably a lot easier for kids to absorb,” said Present. “Especially in those first couple of years. And that's really how kids learn language.”

One hundred-thirty children are currently enrolled, including 2-year-old Le'Onte Clark. His mother, Khaniia Dennard, said reading books with her son has improved his speech delay.

“The first book was the 'Little Blue Truck,'" Dennard said. “He knows the difference between a truck, a van, and a car.”

She said having a book mailed to the home during a pandemic gives families a safer alternative to libraries.

"A lot of parents don't want their kids out the house right now,” she said. “For the books to come directly to you, I feel like it's great."

Present said the home environment has become important part of a child’s education and the goal is to expand the program to all Rochester ZIP codes. He said the Rochester Education Foundation is working with its community partners to make it happen.

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.