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Reading for Health: A Reimagined, Community-Driven Approach to Early Literacy in Del Norte County and Tribal Lands

2018 | Berkeley Media Studies Group

In the downstairs den of Katie Creed's Crescent City home, seven preschool-age children formed a scattered half-circle for afternoon story time. The room was an organized jumble of plastic bins overflowing with Legos, dolls, action figures, and other toys. Butterfly decals, Hello Kitty posters, and a large corkboard with photographs of children Creed has cared for covered the walls.

As Creed, a home-based child care provider, sat down to read, one of the children got up from the plush-carpeted floor and grabbed a chair to sit on. Suddenly, the other six followed suit.

Once the children were settled, Creed announced the title of the book to a chorus of approving cheer. The story, The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark, was a group favorite.

Seconds into the story, a wide-eyed little girl with curly blonde hair interrupted: "I don't like big fish. Big fish eat you."

"Sharks!" a young boy shrieked.

Creed continued with the story of the big fish that was scared of the dark.

"Are you guys scared of the dark?" Creed asked. The children nodded.

"I am, too, sometimes. But it's OK. Your parents are there to keep you safe," she said. "Shall we see what happens next?"

"The pirates got 'em!" said the boy who yelled "sharks!"

Creed was reading one of several books in the Wee Read School Readiness and Literacy curriculum, one of a myriad of efforts to improve early literacy in Del Norte County and Tribal Lands. The curriculum, which was designed by three community members, aims to improve kindergarten readiness with a specific focus on literacy.

"Before, I would read to them and just try to get through the story," Creed said. "With these books, they connect the stories with their own personal stories. It makes them think and use their own imagination. I never thought about that concept and how beneficial it could be."

In Del Norte County and Tribal Lands, early literacy is more than a local educational effort. It is a major community-wide cause aimed at improving life outcomes and health, with strong support and involvement from residents, educators, and business leaders.

Early literacy first gained momentum as a community priority in 2009 when The California Endowment (TCE) selected Del Norte County and Tribal Lands among its Building Healthy Community sites. The 10-year, $1 billion community initiative launched by TCE in 2010 aims to "advance statewide policy, change the narrative, and transform 14 of California's communities most devastated by health inequities into places where all people have an opportunity to thrive."

Del Norte residents and representatives from local schools, businesses, and other stakeholders were initially charged with coming up with top community development priorities.

"A top priority was economic development," recalled Geneva Wiki, TCE program manager in Del Norte. "I expected from the business community what they had been complaining about for decades: our infrastructure — improving our commercial harbor, the airport, sewer system. Surprisingly, they came to the conclusion that what needed to be fixed was the school system. Finding qualified workers had become a big challenge. Of course, we understood the connection between education and health."

Read the full case study here