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It starts with the babies.

Black Hills Reads, a program under the umbrella of the United Way and funded through the John T. Vucurevich Foundation, is midway through a six-year, community-wide campaign to improve grade-level proficiency.

The program is based on research showing that reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and success, said Director Kayla Klein.

“Third-grade reading proficiency is really a pivotal point in a child’s education,” she said. “So, it’s not just how we get the kids from birth to third-grade reading at grade level, but we take a whole child approach.”

Much of their work involves aligning funding and resources behind programs that operate in the Black Hills.

“We do some boots-on-the-ground work, but really we’re an organization that provides connectivity,” Klein said. “We lift up other organizations so they can do the best work they can do.”

That means partnering with schools, universities, parents, local youth organizations and health institutions. The program is focused on four key areas: successful parents, school readiness, school attendance and summer learning.

Baby’s First Book Bag is a great example of the type of collaboration, Klein said. The Bright Start home-visiting program includes visits by local health care professionals to the homes of expectant and new mothers.

“They recognized that literacy was an important part of a child’s development, so Black Hills Reads provided that program with bags for the families full of books and a book on child development,” she said. “We wanted to get the families excited about reading and give them to the tools and information they need.”

The connections are working, she said.

One mother was overwhelmed by the gift, Klein said. On a return visit to the home, the nurse noticed the mother had added to the book library and taken an active role in teaching her baby sign language.

“Some parents think about reading to their baby and they say, ‘it’s just a baby, they don’t understand,’” Klein said. “But it does matter. They can understand facial expression and listen to your voice.”

The earlier the start, the better, she added.

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According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 33 percent of fourth-graders read proficiently. Children not reading at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to not graduate on time. Kindergarten and first-grade students are the most chronically absent — missing nearly one month of school over the course of a year. For every 50 children who don’t learn to read in kindergarten, 44 of them will be less likely to be proficient readers by third grade.

One of the best ways to improve reading proficiency is simply getting the kids excited about it in the first place, Klein said. That was the case with a recent partnership with movie producer and author Sean Covel, who wrote the children’s book “Porter the Hoarder and the Ransacked Room.” Klein and Covel, who is most famous for his production work on "Napoleon Dynamite," designed a reading program around the book and introduced it in to schools last month.

Covel said he wanted to get involved after learning about the objectives of Black Hills Reads.

“I saw how our book could be a tool for causing family engagement and getting kids excited about reading,” he said.

The book launch happened across the Hills on Jan. 31 with in-class reading games that ended with each student receiving their own copy of the book. Students were then encouraged to go home and read the book with their parents.

“We wanted kids charging through the door brimming with energy and focused on having their parent read with them, and it worked,” Covel said.

The following day, Covel and his team read to more than 800 students in Rapid City. He signed books at BAM a day later alongside illustrator Rebecca Swift. The event attracted almost 1,000 people.

“Every one of those people, kids and adults, were excited about reading,” Covel said. “Now that I’ve done this project with Black Hills Reads, I realize that while reading shaped my imagination being able to read gave me a skill set that let me chase my dream in the first place. Being able to read was the difference between having a dream of making movies and having the skills to turn that dream into a goal.”

Klein said the program will look to reach tangible goals in the Black Hills, turning the tide on some of the more serious statistics. But for now, she added, they know they are making a difference by the little things they see.

“One of the teachers came up after the kids received Sean’s book and she was crying,” Klein said.

A boy had approached the teacher in disbelief and said it was the first book he had ever owned.

“It’s about finding those kids that don’t have access,” Klein said. “We know this makes an impact and we want to inspire the joy of reading in young children.”

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