Ninety percent of brain development in humans occurs in the first three years of life when we learn how to learn. During that time, we develop – or we don’t – the neural pathways that will speed the learning process for a lifetime. By age six, the window of opportunity to develop those pathways has basically closed.
Recognizing the voluminous research supporting parental interaction and childhood literacy as the keys to constructing that brainpower, and appreciating that the vast and persistent achievement gap between low-income minorities and their peers in school is more of an opportunity gap, the Lowcountry Graduate Center in 2015 hosted the kickoff fundraising campaign for the North Charleston expansion of Begin With Books, a non-profit that provides books to families with children under five years of age in rural and low-income urban neighborhoods of Charleston County.
As an investment, a contribution to Begin With Books is the philanthropic version of buying stock in Berkshire Hathaway. By the end of 2017, Begin With Books was distributing 48,133 high-quality, age-appropriate books annually to 4,605 children, reaching more than half of the eligible children in the organization’s footprint.
In addition, Begin With Books donated hundreds of books to places that low-income children often visit – child care centers, free clinics, Head Start programs and so on.
All that on a minuscule $133,000 budget – the approximate cost of two literacy coaches in Charleston County schools.
Begin With Books partners with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library (DPIL), which chooses and provides the free books – one each month for each child. Two decades of testing by the DPIL has found that on average, children who receive the books read more, their parents read more, their interest level in books is higher and their school readiness scores jump 20%. The astonishing thing is that just owning and handling the books, and gaining a familiarity with them, has a positive effect,” said Patty Bennett, who co-founded, with Janet Segal, Begin With Books.
It has been estimated that roughly one in five adults in the Lowcountry is either illiterate or functionally illiterate. That number is likely higher among parents of children in low-income neighborhoods. So how does having a book in the house benefit a child whose parents can’t read?
The answer is the adults who are functionally illiterate read at roughly a third-grade reading level, well above the reading level of one-to-five-year-olds. In fact, says Bennett, these are books such parents may be more comfortable with, prompting them to read more, enjoy it more, and improve their own literacy levels.
For parents who can’t read at all, Begin With Books educates them during enrollment to use the books as a prompt, to make up their own stories and discuss them with their children. Anything that connects books with learning and fun sends a positive message to the child.
Small children are information sponges. They are natural learners and, given the opportunity, they love to learn. Bennett says parents have reported that children as young as 18 months recognize that books arrive with new stories every month and begin asking about the next one. Parents have posted on their Facebook page various photos of their children enjoying the books.
Said one parent to Bennett, “you know, we just have a little celebration whenever a book shows up.”
The Lowcountry Graduate Center is proud to be a supporter of an empirically supported education leveler like Begin With Books.