By Dave Stafford, Herald Bulletin Staff Writer
ANDERSON - Angel McClendon had some trouble reading in the past, so it came as a pleasant surprise to the 9-year-old when she learned she's reading at a sixth-grade level.
"I felt happy," she said as she took a break from her book "We're All Special" at a summer reading program at the Urban League. "Now that I know I'm a good reader, that feels good."
Angel is one of about 45 children in the program, where turnout was nearly double what Urban League lead teacher Melinda Cottrell expected.
"It's a wonderful program," she said. "I don't think in the years that I've been here that I've seen so many kids so happy to learn to read." Children also receive lunches and treats such as swimming trips.
"Most kids in this group are reading at their level or above," Cottrell said. "Once they get back to school, their reading level should increase."
The Urban League's participation success mirrors summer reading programs at the Anderson and Lapel public libraries.
"Attendance was off the scale at the beginning," said Sue Robinson, chair of the libraries' summer reading committee. So far, 3,467 people have participated in this summer's program, compared with 3,421 for all of last summer.
"It's far higher participation than we were expecting," Robinson said, noting that the economy might be leading more people to take advantage of free leisure and entertainment options such as the library.
And the library is where the Born Learning Coalition wants to get people in the habit of going from an early age. It's part of the group's efforts to stress to parents the importance that their children are learn from birth to age 5.
Born Learning offers "Books for Babies," in which parents of newborns can get free books and a baby outfit at any Madison County library.
The group also hosts basket parties where books and educational toys are given away.
"They were just really passionate about what they were doing," Jennifer Kline said of Born Learning site coordinators after hosting a basket party. "They seemed to really be able to relate to the people they're trying to impact."
For those site coordinators, the basket parties reveal a wide range of attitudes about parenting.
"As I go out to the community, I'm just amazed at the differences in how people think that children should learn" said site coordinator Kelly Hughes. "We meet people who don't even realize that they should talk to their babies."
The parties give the Born Learning staff a chance to show parents how they can take a role as their child's first teacher.
"We've told parents at these parties that there's so many ways children learn," Hughes said. "Even if you're just talking about a bag of blocks, children can learn shapes, and learn to recognize different sizes. It's even basic math skills and learning how to build something and make it stand up."
Another Born Learning outreach - its "Blast Off to Kindergarten" programs - reached about 550 county children who will be entering school for the first time this fall.
At those events, parents of children received a poster listing skills that their children should have upon entering kindergarten - skills that an estimated 65 percent of children lack.
Mary Lee Ewald, executive director of Community Alliances to Promote Education, said that's a statistic at the core of the Born Learning mission.
"If more than 60 percent of kids are coming in below the national average, they don't have the skills they need to be on track to be ready and they're going to be playing catch-up in school," she said.