I recently came across this startling information: Some states use elementary school reading scores to help determine the number of prison beds needed in the future.
It seems like an odd computation initially, but perhaps the link is really not that surprising. I've always known that reading is a powerful predictor of success. It makes sense that poor reading skills could also be used to predict failure.
"Learning to read and write opens doors to progress and prosperity across a lifetime," states the National Early Literacy Panel's report "Developing Early Literacy," released in January. The report emphasized the importance of early learning. "The years before kindergarten are a particularly fertile and profitable time to prepare young children to read and learn by teaching them essential literacy skills."
On the other hand, kids who don't get exposed to books face serious challenges in school. According to Anchorage School District officials in a November 2008 Anchorage Daily News story, contributing factors to the higher-than-average school drop out rate include kindergartners coming from homes without books, magazines or newspapers.
A downward shift in reading and math skills portends a significantly less literate workforce in 20 years, according to the Education Testing Service. Kurt Landgraf, president of ETS, said reversing this trend will take an increased focus on early childhood education, continuing adult education and programs that keep kids in school.
That's the doom and gloom. Fortunately, our community is doing something to buck these trends.
As the director of our public library, I get to see children discover the love of learning every day. In the past year, more than 40,000 children participated in reading programs at the Anchorage Public Library. That's a 20 percent rise from the previous year.
Growing local readers is not simply a matter of putting books on the shelves and opening library doors. Our library staff is continually looking for ways to attract people and motivate them to read. This winter, for example, our annual community read program, Anchorage Reads, encouraged families to read together by selecting three books for different age groups.
The recently opened Ready to Read Resource Center has created another pathway for developing early literacy in the very youngest Alaskans. Housed at Loussac Public Library, the Center circulates tubs and kits full of early childhood books to agencies that serve children, birth to 3, throughout Alaska. Day care centers and rural libraries can check out Ready to Read Tubs with 30-50 board books for in-house use, or the Read to Me at Home Tubs, each with board books that can be loaned to families for at-home reading.
Measuring future prison populations by the reading abilities of elementary school children is an undeniable paradigm shift. The public library -- with a focus on early literacy, reading promotion and offering books for all ages -- thus becomes one of our community's most proactive public safety assets.
Reading to a child is just about the simplest thing you can do to help them achieve. Be a role model -- and a crime fighter -- and READ!
Karen Keller is director of the Anchorage Public Library.
By KAREN KELLER