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Article updated: 5/20/2013 10:24 PM

U-46 initiative strives for early literacy in kids

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Images of a child-sized hand with the words "Give Me Five!" on the palm and "talk," "play," "read," "do," "write" on the fingers are becoming more visible in the greater Elgin area.

The logo is on stickers, brochures and T-shirts, including those distributed to Elgin Area School District U-46 school board members at their meeting Monday night. Leaders of the school readiness initiative updated board members one year into the effort, which has focused on informing parents, community members and staff members of their roles in making sure 98 percent of first-graders are reading at grade level by 2015.

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Linda Swanson, birth to three parent educator for U-46 was one of four presenters during Monday's meeting. She said the district must start long before first grade in getting students up to par with reading.

"We need to start at birth," Swanson said.

The common message being distributed through the outreach program is just that -- parents should start right away. The Give Me Five! image incorporates a student's need to talk and hear stories and new words, to play and learn rules and strategies for interaction, to read and listen and learn new letters, to write and draw, and to "do," or be active exploring the world using all five senses.

Angela Balk, who works in early childhood assessment and community outreach for U-46, spends her time meeting new families and future students. She conducts literacy programs in parks, under gazebos, in community rooms and in homes. Balk said her department is continually reviewing obstacles to reaching students before they show up for kindergarten. They must find innovative solutions, including teaching preschool activities in the evenings and in nontraditional locales.

The team has been forging new partnerships and strengthening old ones to get all community service providers on the same page with expectations for young students.

And the group is looking for new ways to reach parents -- through social media, through electricity bill mailings and, as suggested by board members Monday, through new parent care packages from hospitals and through text services.

But that success will create new challenges.

"There is always a waitlist for U-46 and community preschool spots," Balk said. "This will increase as we do more outreach in the community."

Moving forward, the initiative aims to continue expanding community partnerships, sharing benchmark expectations and collecting data on student readiness based on these efforts.

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