PLANADA -- While official agencies may be budgeted out of the process, community members are acting as human bookmarks when it comes to local literacy.
A handful of volunteers, the Planada Elementary School District and the Planada Community Activities Coalition launched the Planada Family Reading Program last week, a program designed to get children from infant to age 5 reading with their families.
From 5:45 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday until Dec. 28, families can take their children to the Planada Elementary School library for a night of reading with three volunteer reading specialists. Maria Rodriguez, a home visitor for Merced County's Early Head Start program, founded the program as a way to develop a reading culture in Planada's youngest residents.
It started with a conversation with the Planada Elementary School Superintendent Steve Gomes about the need. Rodriguez then donated some books to the program and later applied for a grant with First 5 to get more funding for materials.
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"We have a high number of English Language Learners -- 85 percent of the community," she said. "Some of the newcomer children begin preschool with no exposure to books."
Last Tuesday was the first night for the program, and Rodriguez said she polled the 11 families who attended about their reading habits.
"Eighty percent of families read in Spanish, if they read at all, and only 30 percent checked out books from schools," she said. "The rest don't have access to books."
Merced County Librarian Jacque Meriam said literacy rates in Planada are some of the lowest in the county.
In Merced County, more than half of adults have the lowest literacy level, said another Merced County librarian, Pam Cornelison.
When children attend the reading night, volunteer reading specialists use a technique called dialogic reading.
"We make a comment and then the child interacts with the book," Rodriguez said. "We ask open-ended questions so the child can get engaged with the story. We want them to begin developing an interest in books to so they pick up the habit."
Steve Gomes said that when most children in Planada enter kindergarten, they have about 1,000 hours of literacy, but children in affluent areas have been exposed to reading for 3,000 hours.
One of the obstacles facing the community is that the closest library to Planada is in Le Grand.
The Planada library closed in 1994 because the county was mired in debt and needed to make cuts, Meriam said.
Plans could be under way to use the Planada Elementary School's library as a dual library for the community.
No plans are in place yet to make this happen, but Meriam said the community has been vocal about needing a library.
In Spanish, "planada" means level ground. That's just what Planada kids need when it comes to starting their education -- and a better reading program can help give it to them.
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209)385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.