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  • Writer's pictureBenay Hicks

The question that keeps me up at night

By Ginger Young, Founder and Executive Director

At Book Harvest, we believe that every child is born brilliant. And we have this crazy dream – it looks like this:

Every child goes to sleep at night with a bedtime story.

Every child arrives at kindergarten with a robust vocabulary and a well-nourished brain.

Every child thrives in school.

Every child feels the deep love of a good story.

We are deeply committed to doing everything we can to make that dream a reality – in Durham and beyond.

The Book Harvest team – and our myriad volunteers and partners, and most of all our parents – work tirelessly to unlock literacy for all, child by child. We aspire to make book ownership, robust reading routines, and a love of books a new normal that transcends income, race, and language barriers.  How do we know if our efforts are working?

THAT is the question I find myself asking in the middle of the night.

I see flashes of our impact every day – in the joy a preschooler exhibits when he discovers pictures of puppies hiding under the flaps of a board book; in the pure delight of a third grader who proudly lands her new favorite book; in the dedication of a mom who tells me she reads to her son every night, determined to do everything she can to give him the best start in life. These stellar moments shine and glitter, and it is a thrill and a privilege to witness them.

So – just perhaps — it is working. But we really, really want to know – not just if our work is having a positive impact, but to what extent: is it a gamechanger, or just a boost? Is it lifting up just a few individuals, or could it have a population-level reach? And do any benefits we might uncover sustain themselves over time?

These are BIG questions. Getting answers to these questions requires unusual expertise. So two years ago, we took our questions to external evaluators, seeking to understand of the extent of our impact on, in particular, our Book Babies program. Book Babies, the starting point of our suite of interventions that accompany parents and families through the first decade of their children’s lives, provides literacy coaching home visits and book provision to enrolled families for five full years, starting at birth. It aspires to put school readiness in reach of every child and family.

Two years into what will

be a seven-year journey, we are just beginning to get some early results. Last week, we received the first interim annual report on what the data are showing, from our researchers at HighScope Educational Research Foundation. I have read every word of the report carefully – and yesterday, I received a briefing from our research team, to better understand – in lay terms – if I am a bit closer to the answer to that question that keeps me up at night.

In a nutshell: our work in the homes of families — work that begins with newborns and continues for five full years — seems to be working. 

It may seem like a no-brainer that our work accompanying parents — with hugs and encouragement, with info on brain science, with modeling of active reading, and of course with books galore — can make a difference in their children’s progress in the first months and years. But figuring out how to close the unconscionable gap in school readiness has been elusive beyond words in our society. At this early moment, I believe that we may just be able to get some answers – about what works, about how to at long last close or at least narrow this gap and deliver on our dream for every child in our midst.

I asked our Principal Investigator, Dr. Iheoma Iruka from HighScope Educational Research Foundation, what her big takeaway was from the findings to date. She replied:

Overall, at this early point in the study, there is indication that more Book Babies parents are engaging in literacy-promoting activities compared to parents in the two control groups, and that children in the Book Babies group are showing stronger early literacy skills, especially in Spanish-speaking families. These preliminary results give us hope that Book Babies can potentially serve as an exemplar of an evidence-based home visiting model that can support low-resourced families and their young children, with lifelong and intergenerational effects.

These measured words from a researcher have me fairly giddy. We will continue to deliver this potent intervention, certainly, and to grow its reach if resources allow, as we stay the course over the next five years to build an evidence base and show the world what works to make sure that every single child arrives at the first day of school strong and ready.

I believe there IS a path to lifting up every child — and delivering to them the literacy and future prosperity that they deserve, regardless of the color of their skin or their how much money their parents make (and if you know me, you know that I find it infuriating that that has been the sorting mechanism heretofore; that needs to be put to rest for once and for all).

You can read the executive summary of the interim report here. I can share the full report with you if you would like – just email me at ginger@bookharvestnc.org, and I will get it right into your inbox. There is a lot to unpack.

Oh, and by the way, regarding that question: How do we know if our efforts are working? I did, once again, find myself awake in the middle of the night last night. But, this time, fueled by yesterday’s briefing on our interim evaluation findings, I was not fretting about how we know whether our efforts are working. I was imagining what the world might look like if we deliver on the promise that every child, born brilliant and poised for a lifetime of literacy and prosperity, deserves.

The road ahead to fully answer my question is long. Yet, this morning, I am filled with hope. I can’t wait to keep you posted on our progress.


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