By John R. Schirmer
Providing books to young children is a passion for country music superstar Dolly Parton. Since the Dolly Parton Imagination Library began in 1995, the program has mailed more than 95 million books to children ages 0-5 across the United States and in other countries.
Now, the Imagination effort is coming to Nashville.
The Nashville School Board voted 4-0 Monday night to approve the Imagination Library for the district and gave the go-ahead to move forward with the project.
Charlotte Green, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, told board members about the library and explained how the district can become involved.
Part of her work at UCA involves making sure that “all children have an equal opportunity. We’ve brought the Imagination Library into communities where it’s partnered” with schools, parents and childhood centers.
Green showed a video about the project.
The video included comments about Parton from friends and neighbors around her home in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Children in the video referred to Parton as “the book lady.”
As one girl said, “I love to read. Dolly Parton sent me books.”
Parton said in the video that kids look forward to going to the mailbox and receiving the latest book from Imagination.
The program currently operates in more than 1,400 communities in the U.S. and Canada, sending out more than 1 million books per month, including 36,000 each month in Arkansas.
Imagination Library aims to provide books to children as soon as they are born and continues until age 5, Green said.
Research shows that human brain development trends upward the most from birth to 5 years of age, according to Green. That’s why it’s important to provide books for children in that age group, she said.
Entire families benefit, Green told the board. “When we send a book to a 3-month-old, we’re sending it to the parents. It’s non-judgmental.”
Imagination Library volunteers ask families if there are books in their homes.
“There are serious book deserts in Arkansas,” she said. “We’re building a culture of reading in homes. For every dollar that’s spent on kids 0-5, you get $9-$21 back. We’re going to put money in anyway – on the front end or the back. Reading is critical.”
Green showed an Arkansas map on which counties with Imagination Library programs were colored green. Howard and Desha counties were yellow, without active programs.
After last night’s vote, Howard County became the 74th to have a library presence.
About 775 children ages 0-5 live in the school district, Green said. Based on results from around the nation, about 60 percent of their parents will agree to participate in the library program, representing 465 children, according to Green.
“Books are age appropriate. Anyone in the Nashville School District with kids ages 0-5 can enroll,” Green said. “The books include tips for parents about interacting with their children and the books. That’s helpful.”
If sign-up begins now, the first books will arrive in February, the board was told.
The cost of books and mailing is $2.10 per child, Green said, making the cost to the district about $1,463 for the first year and increasing to $10,548 by year 5.
The Arkansas Department of Education has received a $38 million grant to improve literacy in the state, and 15 percent of the total is designated for Imagination Library, Green said.
The grant will pay half of the cost of books for districts which qualify, Green said.
Green said she is on the state committee which administers the grant. She told the board and district administrators that Imagination “goes with RISE,” the state’s initiative to improve reading.
“If you get the grant, we’ll pay half of the total [for the books]. I think it will be compelling enough for the state to pay half when the grant runs out,” she said.
The Nashville district will work with parents to register for the program online. Books will be sent monthly from Tennessee.
Superintendent Doug Graham said there are several options for paying the district’s share, including NSLA money and operating funds.
When the amount goes up to $10,000 after five years, “That’s a drop in the bucket to promote reading.”
Some districts have community partners which help with the program, Green said, including banks, churches, civic clubs and industries.
Graham told board members that Kim Slayton, the district’s curriculum coordinator, talked to him about the program and the need to participate in it. Slayton and Green will work on a plan to begin enrollment.