Book it to early reading fun – and great grades

  • POSTER KIDS. Preschoolers who, with the help of a caring older reader, finish the 75 books on the Ready! Set, Read! list earn star status on a poster delivered by the Book Fairy. (Poster courtesy of Tacoma Public Schools)

Judy Chichinski may have found the secret to closing Tacoma Public Schools’ achievement gap: The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Oh, and Blue Dog, The Seals on the Bus, Old Bear, The Three Little Tamales, One Monkey Too Many and the rest of the characters in 75 books young children love.

Chichinski is the mastermind behind READY! Set, Read!, the Tacoma Public Schools program that’s helping preschoolers with the skills they need to succeed in the high-stakes world of kindergarten. Her technical title is “Facilitator, Instructional Technology, Technology Services,” but, really, she’s a school librarian.

“Three years ago I was a librarian at Skyline Elementary, and I would see the pre-schoolers come in with their families to register the older students,” she said.

While their parents dealt with school business, the little guys would just hang around.

“We decided to get the library involved and have a story time,” she said. “It developed into a weekly thing, so my boss said, ‘Let’s get a grant and get books for preschoolers.’”

If you give a mouse a cookie, you know what happens: Big stuff.

Chichinski and her colleagues researched the ideal preschool library and came up with 75 books.

“There’s a smattering of science and math, and multicultural books, and three from the kindergarten curriculum,” she said.

Once they had the books, the librarians wanted to get them into the hands, and laps, of people who would read to those little kids. But they found uncertainty in some families. Some parents, because of language, or history, or education, don’t read and didn’t know how to read well to others. Some of the children in those families don’t know how to hold a book, or that you turn pages one at a time, starting at the front.

So the librarians added users’ manuals to the front and back of the books.

“In the front are reading tips,” Chichinski said.

The reader and child can take a picture tour of the book before they get down to the story, for example.

“There are activities at the end, developed by a team of teachers,” Chichinski said. “They extend the learning.”

They extended it more than anyone expected.

The simple act of regular reading gave the children a jumpstart into kindergarten, which is a tougher gig than it was even a decade ago.

Kindergarteners today should know the alphabet, all the letter sounds, how to read and write their names, how to hold a book and follow the story said retired principal Wes Burmark.

He and Chichinski persuaded administrators to take READY! Set, Read! district-wide. The sets of 75 books, which cost $1,400, are in every elementary school, plus middle schools and high schools with programs that bring little kids into the buildings.

Parents, siblings and older students check off each book they’ve read with their preschooler, and, at the end, the new reader gets a poster of himself or herself holding a favorite book. It’s delivered in person by the Book Fairy at a special ceremony.

Pretty cool. But does it work?

Yes, it does, and better than anyone expected.

Their first set of graduates has gone through kindergarten.

“The students were kids of poverty, 16 percent above the district level, yet they topped the district average on their reading test scores by 18 percent in letter recognition and eight percent in letter sounds,” said Tess Griswold, the AmeriCorps worker on the project. “We know we can make a difference.”

Kids who start behind in kindergarten tend to stay behind through school, Chichinski said. That’s the achievement gap illustrated at its simplest.

“Let’s ELIMINATE the achievement gap,” Chichinski said, in capital letters, with all the enthusiasm of the Book Fairy. “Let’s not try to catch them up. Let’s get them there at the beginning.”

They’re going after fresh preschoolers, which is why they’re inviting them to a party with the Radio Disney Rock ‘n’ Road Crew Fri., Feb. 22, from 2-3 p.m. at Peace Community Center, 2106 S. Cushman Ave.

“We are half way to our goal of 700 students,” said Griswold.

There’s plenty of room, she said, a caterpillar to meet, and a world to read.

Free READY! Set, Read! Book Party with Radio Disney

What: A free book party with music, dancing, games and puzzles, plus information on preparing for kindergarten.

Who’s invited: Children under age 6 and their caring adults.

When: Fri., Feb. 22, 2-3 p.m.

Where: Peace Community Center, 2106 S. Cushman Ave.

More information: Call (253) 571-1054 of click onto


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