Huntington program tries to raise readers

Rosa Maldonado and her son Nevin, 4, read

Rosa Maldonado and her son Nevin, 4, read a library book together as part of the Raising a Reader at the Huntington Public Library. (May 10, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

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Four-year-old Nevin Maldonado was content to sprawl on the floor on a recent afternoon, drawing a star in his notebook -- until his mother beckoned him, a children's book in hand.

In a flash, Nevin was in Rosa Maldonado's lap, and the two soon were deep in "1, 2, 3 to the Zoo," counting elephants and describing the colors of birds.

The book was courtesy of the "Raising a Reader" program -- a collaboration between the Huntington Public Library and the Huntington Head Start, where Nevin is a student.

The idea is to prepare economically disadvantaged children for kindergarten by encouraging early literacy skills, said Kristine Casper, department head of youth and public services at the library.

In October, the library became the only Long Island affiliate of Raising a Reader, a California-based nonprofit that created the early reading program.

The library then paired with the Head Start program on Railroad Avenue, where 44 children are enrolled.

In the program, each child receives a bag of books weekly to read at home with their parents. The children return the bag each week and swap it for a different bag of books -- some with words, some just with pictures, to encourage children to create their own stories.

So far, parents and children have enthusiastically embraced the idea, said Lisa Cornell, center manager of the Huntington Head Start.

"It's a great program," Cornell said. "It makes a big difference with these children."

Maldonado said that before the program, she and Nevin would sometimes read together. But now, every night, she and her son snuggle and read for at least half an hour -- he considers it his "homework," she said. "He learns a lot with this program."

Casper said the program also benefits the parents.

"A lot of parents in the program are low literacy themselves, or they speak a different language," Casper said. "Kids are reading to their parents, and parents are also increasing their vocabulary skills."

Casper said another goal is to make lifetime readers out of the children and their parents -- most of them now have library cards, and some are starting to show up at the library on their own.

"It's driven by the kids," Casper said. "The kids are so excited to get the books home. The kids are going to open up the bag and say, 'Read this book to me.' "

Andrea Garcia, associate professor of literacy at Hofstra University, said studies have shown that early literacy is key to helping children transition to school.

Programs such as Raising a Reader, Garcia said, are key in that they send books home with children who might not go to libraries.

"Even after the program is completed, because the family feels comfortable with the idea of the public library, they go back to the library and get other books," she said. "Kids start asking for it."

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