Pendleton Public Library has joined hands with five other Eastern Oregon libraries to begin preparing children for college before they even enter kindergarten. The pioneer program also will assess the effect library use has on early literacy development.

The initiative, called Project Ready to Learn, would open college savings accounts with the Oregon College Savings Plan for parents of children from birth to five-years-old. It would be open to members of the Pendleton, Hermiston, La Grande and Enterprise public libraries, and Baker and Grant county libraries, said Pendleton Public Library Director Kat Davis. Every time a child checks out a book or participates in an approved learning program, they could swipe a “Ready to Learn” card and earn 2 cents to an interest-earning college savings account. Card swipes also would earn parents discounts at places like local restaurants and grocery stores.

The program aims to capitalize on the high rate of brain development children experience from birth to age five, and encourage parents to start planning for their children’s college education earlier by opening the savings accounts. Davis said the 2 cent amount was chosen because it’s sustainable relative to the number of children expected to use the service, which could be as many as 10,000 children, according to a Ready to Learn fact sheet.

Davis said she thinks the program, which is open to all socioeconomic backgrounds, is likely the first of its kind and could set a statewide, or even national, example.

“This is the first time that I know of that this kind of measurement of libraries on the effect of early learning has ever been done,” said Davis, who championed the idea.

Gov. John Kitzhaber’s efforts to integrate learning from birth to college inspired the idea for Project Ready to Learn. Davis started working on the project in February with Ami Muilenburg, InterMountain ESD special education director.

Davis said she hopes the program will be available in June 2013, pending approval of a $190,000 state library board-administered federal grant she expects to hear about in October. Project Ready to Learn is being led by a team of IMESD employees, all six participating libraries, the Oregon College Savings Plan and three Eastern Oregon University professors.

“(The professors’) role is to assist the project coordinator with designing the appropriate assessment tool to make sure we’re getting good results and we’re getting professional analysis of the data we collect,” she said.

If approved for the federal grant, the Project Ready to Learn team will be able to start searching for a contracted project coordinator by February.

“The way the project is set up, that coordinator’s job will be to help all these different agencies to work together effectively, so they’ll be building the infrastructure for the project,” Davis said, “but once it’s built, once it’s running it will be able to keep running with the (library and IMESD) staff we have right now,”

She said comparing kindergarten screening performance of children who participated in the program against those who did not will measure the correlation between library use and early child development. She said the professors will conduct this analysis at the end of every year. But their findings at the end of the five-year test run will be the most telling because they will offer results of a continuous study on a test sample in the program’s targeted age group.

To cover the Ready to Learn college savings incentive, the Oregon College Savings Plan has pledged $25,000 for the first year of the program, and Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc. committed to annually giving $30,000. Davis said after the program’s first year, she plans to ask the state library board to fund the project for two additional years, and seek another source of grant funding if the request is rejected.

The project coordinator would hire three field staffers to work with libraries to oversee the educational programming.

Carol Lauritzen, Ph.D., an EOU education professor working on Project Ready to Learn, said she’s participating in it because of the importance of preparing children for kindergarten through reading and other educational activities.

“Children that have those kinds of backgrounds enter school so much more ready to learn those things that are taught in school,” she said. “And we know that that correlates to their success later in school.”

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Contact Chris Rizer at crizer@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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