Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

To strengthen young children’s literacy, residents of the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield enlisted natural allies — stars of the children’s literary world. 

Mary Pope Osborne, author of the popular Magic Tree House series, and her sister, Natalie Pope Boyce, author of the series’ nonfiction companion books, spoke at a well-attended spring event to raise public awareness about Pittsfield Promise, an early childhood literacy initiative linked to the community’s grade-level reading campaign. 

“What it really captured was the parents. To make a difference, we need the parents,” says Karen Vogel, early childhood coordinator for Berkshire United Way, the backbone organization for Pittsfield Promise. “Many let me know that they went home and read with their children.” 

The event also publicized Pittsfield’s summer learning programs, which are using new literacy materials designed to prevent the learning loss that affects many children during the summer. The materials include 16 binders, each with a Magic Tree House book and nonfiction companion plus a literacy curriculum.  

“Our summer programs are just starting to implement literacy efforts so we are trying to get them to the point where they are impactful and measurable,” says Vogel, a veteran early childhood educator who developed the binders, with help from resources on Mary Pope Osborne's website.  

Offered by schools, the library, the city and parks department as well as summer camps, the summer learning programs serve about 500 elementary school-age children. The binders also will be available at the library.  

Pittsfield Promise plans to evaluate the new summer literacy push by getting feedback from summer program staff and by measuring the before-and-after impact on children’s literacy. The group’s goal is to raise the percentage of third graders reading proficiently from 44 percent in 2012 to 90 percent by 2020.

As for the involvement of the literary sisters, it was an unexpected result of Pittsfield Promise’s local outreach. After speaking to the men’s group at the South Congregational Church, Vogel heard back from the pastor that a parishioner was friends with Mary Pope Osborne, who lives in the northeast, and suggested the event.  

“This is a result of that on-the-ground community involvement, utilizing the assets in our community, where people are helping each other and finding different ways to work together to help kids get on the right track,” says Vogel. “I’m so pleased with the connections made in the community. People are so willing to help. From every conversation, every email I have with an organization or agency, it snowballs. Building relationships is where it starts and I’m starting to see the community rise up. They’re approaching me now.”  

A collaboration involving over 80 community partners, Pittsfield Promise also created fact sheets to distribute to “every possible sector — families, businesses, faith-based organizations, medical and dental practices, restaurants, “ says Vogel. “We want everyone involved.”  

More than 400 children and their families attended the spring event, held at the South Congregational Church, and over 280 Magic Tree House books, donated by Berkshire United Way, were distributed to people who brought items for the church’s food pantry.  

“It was a great collaboration,” says Vogel. “The church knows how to bring people together and help. They had 25-plus volunteers helping out.”  

The two sisters also donated more than 1,500 of their books to low-income children attending Pittsfield summer programs and met again in July with residents, including summer program providers using the new materials. Natalie Pope Boyce, who lives in Berkshire County, shared how she researches material to include in her nonfiction companion books. And the sisters visited two summer program sites. 

“It’s all about reading to learn and how to find out more about topics of interest” sparked by reading books, says Vogel. Another development: Pittsfield Promise’s quarterly community meetings are now being held at the South Congregational Church. “Our strength is our community,” says Vogel. We have some people who are truly dedicated to this.”

 For more information, contact Karen Vogel at 413-442-6948 or Karen.Vogel@berkshireunitedway.org.

Photos: Pittsfield Promise; Publication Date: Summer 2014

 

To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net.

 

Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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