New York State School Boards Association

Ithaca program looks to grow bookworms

On Board Online • July 18, 2011

By Marc Humbert
Senior Writer

In Ithaca, it is hard to miss the message. Huge “Read to Me!” banners are draped from buildings. Bright red bookshelves stuffed with “gently used children’s books”  are found all over town, including the police station. Visit a kitchen where a toddler lives and you might find a colorful “Read to Me, Any Time, Any Place!” calendar. 

Brigid Hubberman founded the Family Reading Partnership in 1997 after hearing from kindergarten teachers that up to a quarter of their students were starting school lacking any exposure to books.

“This was in Ithaca, New York, that has Cornell (University) and Ithaca College,” said Hubberman.

These children were starting school “up to two years behind,” she told On Board. “Even in the very best schools, it’s hard to catch up when you’re coming in two years behind.”

So Hubberman began doing what she has been doing ever since – reaching out to the larger community to make a difference.

“I said let’s make sure there’s a book going home with every baby from the hospital. And, our local bank said they would do that,” she said.

And, for the past 15 years, the Tompkins Trust Company has been funding the program that sends “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” home with every baby.

The partnership has also launched a program in which all children registering for kindergarten in Tompkins County are given the same book to take home. When they start school, they have “a shared-book experience,” Hubberman noted.

The partnership has drawn together civic organizations, businesses, schools and colleges with the unified goal of getting books into homes, and having parents and children reading them. The program has even produced two of its own books, including the recently released “Love Those Letters” alphabet book that includes a DVD produced with the help of the Ithaca City School District.

Hubberman said the partnership is working with a budget of about $350,000 raised entirely from private sources including foundations, sponsors and about 600 individual donors. “There are no tax dollars,” she said.

With a staff of five (Hubberman is executive director), the partnership is placing about 15,000 books a year into homes in the Ithaca area. It is also working to spread the word beyond the city.

“We have a family reading partnership alliance” that is working with organizations in nine surrounding counties, Hubberman said.

Hubberman hopes to get new state Education Commissioner John King interested in taking some of the partnership’s work statewide.

“Our schools can’t do it alone. Our communities can’t do it alone. And, families certainly can’t do it alone,” she said. “When you share things, they come back to you stronger. We really are better, together.”

Hubberman said she is ready to help other communities get started in the business of promoting family reading. She suggested those interested first survey their own areas, talk to teachers and find out who is already working on the issue locally. And, there is plenty of information on the partnership’s website:

“We have been living and breathing this for 15 years, so we’ve got a lot to share,” she said.

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