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Researchers touch the lives of 350 local children

Oct. 3, 2008

KALAMAZOO--Western Michigan University researchers have been awarded a three-year grant of a little more than $4 million to fund a literacy program that will touch the lives of some 350 preschool children in the Kalamazoo area to help them be ready to learn to read when they enter grade school.

The grant, from the U.S. Department of Education, will fund the Promising Beginnings program and is similar to an earlier program, the Early Reading First program, that began in Battle Creek in 2006 and also was funded by the Department of Education. Both projects are overseen by Dr. Esther Newlin-Haus, project director, and Drs. Kristal Ehrhardt and Shaila Rao, WMU associate professors of special education and literacy studies. Others will be very involved with the WMU-led effort. They include Dr. Carmen Cornieles-Domanico, Lori Farrer and Patti Cornelius, who will continue their role as literacy coaches.

Both the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo projects involve a partnership with Head Start. The Kalamazoo program also partners with Learning Village, a state-funded and tuition-based program, and the YWCA Children's Center. The Kalamazoo program also has a community component in partnership with the Kalamazoo Public Library, Hispanic American Council and Parent to Parent of Southwest Michigan.

The program will provide extensive professional development, foster family involvement and community partnership efforts and help develop print-rich environments at participating centers to improve school readiness.

"One thing we understand from research is the critical years are before kindergarten, and what we've been doing is not closing the gap in achievement for children from low-income families," Newlin-Haus says.

Of the Kalamazoo children involved, 76 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunches and 10 percent are English language learners who speak Spanish, Arabic and various Asian languages.

The primary project goals are to enhance the literacy instruction skills of early childhood teachers, to improve early literacy outcomes for young children, particularly those at risk of later academic problems, and to create centers of excellence in early literacy instruction.

The new project is called "Promising Beginnings" because it is building on the Kalamazoo Promise to help ensure that all students who want to take advantage of the college scholarship program are able to do so.

"Early childhood education is experiencing a paradigm shift," Newlin-Haus says. "We're moving into a much more structured approach to teaching emerging literacy skills. Utilizing the Opening the World of Learning curriculum and providing a lot of professional development allows us to do just that. Through the grant, literacy centers of excellence will be provided with wonderful curriculum materials and skilled instruction for young children."

Many preschool centers cannot afford the resources offered in public schools, Newlin-Haus adds. Classroom libraries at these centers will be greatly enhanced, and free books will be sent home with children. On a community level, parent workshops and mentoring are part of the mix, while on the professional development side, workshops, seminars and small-group "coaching labs" will be offered.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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