Reading program key to Baltimore children’s literacy progress


By next year, 42,000 pre-K and kindergarten children in Baltimore will be participating in a simple and weekly educational exercise: carrying home high quality, multicultural children’s books inside a red bag.

Gabrielle Miller, president and CEO of Raising A Reader

(Courtesy Photo/RAR)

Gabrielle Miller, president and CEO of Raising A Reader

Approximately $2 million in outside funding is being brought into Charm City through Raising a Reader (RAR), a nonprofit that provides resources and programs that help families develop, practice and maintain literacy habits crucial to a child’s success.

The nonprofit provides books for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students each week with an objective to send children home with the books for parents to read with them.

“It really helps to connect families and it’s a powerful tool to help children be better prepared for reading and to be better prepared for the classroom,” said Gabrielle Miller, the president CEO of RAR who is also recognized as an expert in child literacy.

Since the program began in Baltimore in 2011, RAR, implemented by the Baltimore City Public Schools and Head Start, has expanded to include almost 100 public schools and 50 Head Start locations throughout the city.

In 2016, officials say that more than 12,000 Baltimore children will be enrolled and will take home 37,000 books each week. By the end of 2016, RAR will have reached an estimated 42,000 children and their families throughout Baltimore, or 75 percent of all pre-K and kindergarten students, according to Miller.

“It’s really the parents of Baltimore who are making incredible changes in building literacy in their homes that’s made this successful,” Miller said. “We have been working with the city and Head Start and focused on four and five-year olds. We’ve been helping families to develop and maintain the habit of sharing books together.”

Miller says public and private sponsors have been keys for the program because it means that cash-strapped schools don’t have to dip into their coffers.

“We are committed to the families of Baltimore and will continue to do everything we can to support them and help children build the literacy skills essential for lifelong success. We are able to do this, in large part, thanks to the vision and commitment of our funders,” Miller said.

In addition to the Abell Foundation; Target; T. Rowe Price; the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation; and others, the program now receives state and federal funding through the Maryland State Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education.

With headquarters in California, RAR has more than 2,700 sites in 34 states.

“For me, I’m a Baltimore girl and Baltimore has really responded and the city is so much more than what’s been in the news lately,” Miller said. “Families there are doing incredible work and, even on our Facebook page, there’s a video of a grandmother from Cherry Hill who talks about her experience with RAR. She describes the bag that comes home each week and she said she takes time to read the book with her grandchild.”

The organization has reached more than 1.25 million children since 1999, primarily by partnering with a community’s school, library or direct service agencies to distribute the books and share best practices with parents, officials noted in a news release.

In Baltimore, partnering with Baltimore City Public Schools and Baltimore City Head Start, the organization’s effort is large, rapidly growing and ambitious.

“Part of what happens is that we want parents to understand how to share stories with children and we know that families today are being pulled in a million different directions so we try and step in,” Miller said.

One way in which the program has proven successful is the innovative ideas those in the Baltimore School System and at Head Start have come up with, she said, noting that Head Start held a “RAR Fashion Show” during Easter in which children modeled their favorite new clothes or shoes while walking the runway with a RAR bag.

“The announcers would announce the child and say what the child is wearing and also say that he’s carrying his RAR bag with his favorite book,” Miller said. “It reminds families that it’s OK to share a book even with the little one who’s sitting upside down on the couch. There’s so much power and brilliance in Baltimore and we get to share this all around the country.”