Teaching kids to read earlier and more often is like gaining compound interest on a bank account, according to Oak Harbor resident George Saul.
This belief is why Saul and his wife Sheila decided to bring a unique literacy program to the Oak Harbor Library.
The six-week Prime Time family reading program invites third graders and their families once a week to read a story, discuss it as a family, eat a free dinner and go home with a book to read before the next week.
“It’s education for the family about how to present books, how to read together, how to use the library and just how to make reading a family experience,” said Jim Hills, public information manager for Sno-Isle Libraries.
The program is licensed through the group Humanities Washington, but the organization typically has only funded it in Snohomish and King counties, according to Jane Lopez-Santillana, assistant managing librarian and coordinator of the program.
Saul had been looking to make some sort of contribution to the library in honor of his late mother. She was a high school librarian in his home town of Ithaca, N.Y. and very involved in reading programs, he said.
Saul went to Mary Campbell, library manager, and she mentioned the benefits of Prime Time and her desire to bring it to Oak Harbor. Through the Whidbey Community Foundation, the Sauls donated $29,000 to implement it.
“She’d be very enthusiastic if she had the opportunity to see this,” said Saul with a grin.
Last week marked the last gathering of the series. Around 15 third graders from Oak Harbor Elementary School sat on the floor in front of two volunteer readers and the families sat in chairs around them.
Members of the school district approached the families of students whom they thought would benefit the most from this type of program and asked if they wanted to sign up. Teachers and administration looked at students who needed some extra support with reading comprehension, Lopez-Santillana said.
Brittney Wolniakowski said her son had struggled in the past because he didn’t really enjoy reading and he often wouldn’t remember what he had read.
“He slows down now,” she said. “He’s able to reference different parts of a book.”
Each session only includes students from one school at a time because the program also aims to build social skills as well as reading abilities, she said.
“We’re focusing on literacy but also on community connections,” Lopez-Santillana said.
Claudia Sámano Losada and Mechelle VanHoudt took turns reading aloud to the audience during the program and asking questions about the story. Sámano Losada owns a local dance studio and is a library board member. VanHoudt is a former library employee and retired teacher.
“They’re both highly suited to this work,” Lopez-Santillana.
Sámano Losada is also fluent in Spanish and has helped English learner students in past sessions.
The food is organized and provided by Maria McGee, owner of Lotus Tea Bar and Studio. The grant pays for the meals, but McGee organizes and distributes them to the families before and after the program.
Each family went home on the last day with a grocery gift card, a certificate and a book to keep.
Lopez-Santillana said after reading the post-session surveys she found that every family either agreed or strongly agreed to every question related to improvement. Most increased their ability to discuss what their kids were reading with them and started reading together more regularly at home.
Families also learned more about resources available at the library, and 12 new library cards were created during the process, she said.
Lopez-Santillana submitted a grant application to bring back the program next year, and if approved, students from Crescent Harbor Elementary will participate. If the grant isn’t received, Saul said he encourages others to join together and donate to the program to bring it back.
“I ask people to think about the notion about how you and your neighbor could support six weeks of learning,” he said.
“Reading is a building block for learning,” he said. “… It’s really the keys to the magic kingdom.”