Submitted by Waukegan Public Library
Staff from the Waukegan Public Library attended the American Library Association Conference in Anaheim, Calif., held June 21-26, to accept the 2012 Marshall Cavendish Award for excellence in library programming. Public libraries nationwide compete for the annual award, which includes a $2,000 cash prize and citation of achievement. Calling the library's Early Learning Center "a model for community engagement," the ALA committee conferred the award based on the center's ongoing, innovative programs and rotating exhibits.
"This award means so much to me because it brings national recognition to what has to be our library's most important initiative," said Elizabeth Stearns, the library's assistant director of community services. "The Early Learning Center stands as our investment in the future of this community."
Stearns said the idea to build an Early Learning Center originated in 2006 when United Way of Lake County released survey results showing eight out of 10 Waukegan children begin public school without any previous exposure to books. Two-thirds of the children could not write their own name and most were unable to recognize any letters in the alphabet. More than 70 percent of children spoke Spanish at home, a statistic that still holds true today.
With help from donors, the library created a 2,200 square-foot facility on its lower level, featuring interactive, bilingual displays and programming geared toward children age 7 and younger. Programs include story time camps modeled after District 60 preschool programs. In Waukegan, the district's state-funded preschool programs can only accommodate 46 percent of the city's low-income 3- and 4-year-olds. Children on the preschool waitlist can come to the library's Early Learning Center instead and participate in a similar curriculum for free.
Each year North Shore Gas helps the library keep the center fresh and interesting by sponsoring all-new exhibits based on a theme. One year, the center featured museum-scale dinosaur models and exhibits highlighting the Paleozoic and Jurassic eras. Last year the exhibits took on an "Under the Sea" theme. Now the center features "Creepy Crawlies" around Lake County and beyond, including a live tarantula and scorpions.
In 2011, the library's Early Learning Center also won the Highsmith Library Innovative Award from the Illinois Library Association. The center is open during regular library hours and offers many free summer camps geared toward specific age groups. For more information or to register for a camp, call the library, at (847) 623-2041 or visit www.waukeganpl.org.
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