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   from the issue of October 18, 2007

$2.74M grant aimed at improving children's literacy


Language and reading skills for rural, low-income children age 3 to 5 is the focus for a new project through UNL's Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools.

With the support of a $2.74-million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the university's new Rural Language and Literacy Connection will support an intensive, literacy-based early learning program for about 200 Grand Island-area children annually and as many as 50 teachers and assistants who work with the children and their families.

The project will partner university researchers with educators at Head Start Child and Family Development Inc. and Grand Island Public School's early childhood programs and select local child care providers and area families, to promote and support early learning. The grant was announced at a media and guest special event Oct. 17 in Grand Island.

"The unique part of this program is our focus for providing literacy support within the various settings that children experience daily," said Lisa Knoche, co-director of the new project and a research assistant professor at UNL. "We're very much focused on the preschool classrooms, but the children who we're working with are also in child care centers and at home so we see child care providers and parents being very involved in this project as well."

Co-principal investigator on the project for UNL is Helen Raikes, professor in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies.

The program will provide materials that encourage early literacy such as dual-language children's books and other reading tools, biweekly "literacy nights" for families and child care providers, and training for teachers. A national literacy education consultant will conduct training and local literacy coaches will provide on-site mentoring to teachers. Families will get ongoing support during monthly home visits, and families and local educators will receive stipends for participating in training and project implementation. The grant will also provide for one existing classroom to be lengthened from half-day to full-day.

The ultimate goal is to prepare preschool-age children to enter kindergarten with skills to assure success in reading. That leads to success in other subject areas. These skills generate confidence, positive social skills and problem-solving abilities that can have substantial influence on later success in school, Knoche said.

"The purpose is to get children ready to enter the formal educational system prepared to read and succeed. Ultimately we hope those changes are sustained," she said. "We will be tracking children into elementary school to assess positive change."

The program is funded through the U.S. Department of Education's "Early Reading First" program, and support the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Deb Ross, executive director of the Head Start Child and Family Development Inc., which serves as many as 1,200 families per month in Hall, Adams, Clay, Nuckolls, Franklin and Webster counties, said the UNL program's targeted and holistic approach will efficiently address reading and school readiness, across a population that will benefit greatly from the project.

"If children don't have this background in literacy and the tools they need by third grade, they'll stay behind, and they may never make that up," Ross said. "We need to be sure their families and educators have access to everything they can to support them."

Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the project demonstrates the university's commitment to reaching out to Nebraskans to deliver services that educate students throughout their lifetime.

"Educational outreach benefits not only the ones directly involved in these learning environments, but everyone, because of the enhancement of the quality of lives and future potential of the individuals and their families," Perlman said. "Someday we'll see these preschoolers at the university, and we're glad, today, to be part of that dream for them."

Children, families and classrooms will soon be identified, with assessments in November, teacher training in December, and the project will be fully operational in January.



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