On Thursday, the District and D.C. Public Library are expected to officially announce a new program designed to boost literacy among the city’s children.

The “Books from Birth” program will send enrolled kids one book to their homes each month up until age five. The goal is to get children reading early in life, based on research that shows academic and personal outcomes improve as a function of literacy. Books from Birth comes from a partnership between D.C. and the Dollywood Foundation, which will manage the distribution of the materials in order to keep costs low. Ultimately, it could benefit tens of thousands of children and connect their families with DCPL’s resources.

“Even at an early age, reading to young children is the best thing you can do to put them on a path to success,” a post on the library system’s website explains. “Your kids pick up new words, have fun while they learn, and develop skills they will need later in school.”

The program has its origins in a bill introduced by the D.C. Council last year and spearheaded by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. Allen says his intent in crafting the legislation was to address educational inequality—the “achievement gap”—in a proactive way: Instead of waiting for evidence of the gap to appear on standardized tests taken in grammar school, why not seek to get ahead of it by leveling the playing field?

The achievement gap is driven to an extent by a “word gap,” the councilmember adds, where infants from disadvantaged households may hear millions fewer words spoken, and thus are less likely to absorb them. Allen says part of his motivation in drafting the legislation was personal: He has a three-year-old daughter, who has easy access to many books. “She’s going to be OK, but that’s not every kid’s experience,” he says.

Adults must be a child’s parent or legal guardian to register them for the program; only D.C. residents are eligible, but siblings under five are each entitled to their own books. “Books are selected by professionals who choose books that reflect a diversity of people and cultures, and that promote self-esteem and love of reading,” DCPL explains online. Similar programs have seen some success in Tennessee and Rhode Island.

In fact, Books from Birth had a soft launch in January and already has more than 2,900 children enrolled. The program’s funding for this year amounts to nearly $450,000, covering staffing, marketing, and books.

Richard Reyes-Gavilan, DCPL’s executive director, says the program is designed to “reach people in the most convenient place possible”—their homes. It will also allow the District to collect data on participation.

“We know the kids will have the books,” Reyes-Gavilan explains. “Our goal is to offer wrap-around services to those books: We want to make sure caregivers and parents know what to do when those books arrive.” He notes that not every book will speak to kids in the same way, because the books will be chosen for them.

DCPL will be responsible for doing targeted outreach to communities through advertising and partnerships with organizations such as Children’s National Health System, United Planning Organization, and even the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. The library system will do mailers to participants too.

Books, which will be age-appropriate and provided by the Dollywood Foundation, need not be returned to DCPL or the nonprofit once a child has finished them; they can be given to another child, donated, or kept.

“They’re not just words or pictures on a page; they’re tools, they’re toys,” Reyes-Gavilan says. “It’s about underscoring that sense of wonder and curiosity. If we can do that, we hope it will lure them to their local libraries.”

This post has been updated with additional information

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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