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Pick a Book, Any Book

New UW center will serve as epicenter for literacy learning, instruction and leadership

Volume 14 | Number 3 | May/June 2013

By Steve Kiggins
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We all remember the age-old tale of Humpty Dumpty. He sat on a wall and had a great fall.

And we’ll never forget The Cat in the Hat. He knows some good games—with a cup and a cake and a little toy ship.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. The Little Engine That Could. Goodnight Moon. The timeless stories of childhood allowed each of us to open the window to our own imagination, whether we pretended to explore the big city with Curious George or wander the vast jungle with Babar. We remember these books with such fondness that, decades later, we read them to our children.

That’s become Carol Mead’s favorite story: a mother or a father, cuddled with child, a book in hand.

“There’s an emotional bond between a parent and a child that is really strengthened by the process of reading,” says the First Lady of Wyoming and one of the state’s champions for childhood literacy and learning. “Some parents say, ‘Oh, they’re not old enough yet,’ or ‘They’re not following what I’m doing when they’re 1 or 2.’ Well, they are. They’re seeing how to hold a book, they’re seeing what a book is, they’re seeing pictures, they’re hearing you pronounce words that maybe they haven’t heard before.”

As the wife of Gov. Matt Mead speaks about one of her life’s passions, her cheeks glow and her brown eyes sparkle. She smiles and adds, “Holding your little child and showing them things in books and sharing that time and that joy—it’s just one of the most wonderful things you can do as a parent.”

The treasure at the end of the rainbow in Mead’s story is far more valuable than a chest full of gold coins. It’s the beginnings of a child’s literacy.

In a landmark effort to ensure the future of Wyoming’s children—from Ten Sleep to Thermopolis to Torrington, Glenrock to Green River to Greybull— the University of Wyoming has partnered with the First Lady on a transformational project that will create a statewide hub for literacy learning, instruction and leadership.

The Wyoming Literacy Research Center and Clinic (LRCC), scheduled to open in January 2014 following an extensive $3.85 million renovation of the ground floor of the UW College of Education Annex, will feature nearly 6,000 square feet of child and family-friendly space dedicated to strengthening literacy skills through professional development for teachers; improved literary education for pre-service teachers and graduate students; research on literacy education; and service as a statewide clinical resource. The center will include individual and group tutorial rooms, conference and workshop spaces and faculty and graduate assistant offices, all equipped with state-of-the-art technology that will connect the UW campus to points across the Cowboy State.

“The achievement of a vision requires a great leader,” says UW Foundation President Ben Blalock. “When we asked Wyoming’s First Lady to become UW’s literacy spokesperson everything changed, and all for the better. Key financial supporters took great notice. UW’s statewide outreach literacy programs vaulted to the next level. Carol has become such a key leader for one of UW’s most important academic agendas.”

We have to get them early

The phone rang once. Then once again. Breaking from the work on her desk that January day in 2011, Kay Persichitte answered and heard a familiar voice on the other end.

"It was Ben calling me and saying, ‘Let’s go over to Cheyenne and have a cup of coffee with the First Lady,’” recalls Persichitte, the dean of UW’s College of Education.

That’s the story of how Carol Mead came to join the university’s fledgling efforts to create a literacy center and clinic, which, years earlier, had been identified as a key initiative in University Plan 3. Within days of Blalock’s call to Persichitte, the UW twosome had met with Mead, who then went public with her intentions to focus on children’s issues during her time as First Lady.

“I knew I wanted to do something that would benefit Wyoming’s children. We’ve got two children of our own, and the governor and I believe that our children are the greatest asset we have here in Wyoming. If we can secure their future, really, we secure the future of the state of Wyoming,” says Mead, who has worked with the UW Foundation to raise private support for the LRCC as well as with the university as a major spokesperson for literacy initiatives.

“You can spoon-feed information to a child only for so long. At some point, they have to be able to read to keep up and to be able to learn and to be able to flourish in school,” she says. “And third grade seems to be a cutoff point. If they cannot read, they just fall further and further behind and they just set themselves up on this trajectory toward becoming a high school dropout. We have to get to them early.”

There’s proof, too. A 2012 study funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and conducted by Donald Hernandez, a professor at Hunter College in New York City, found that one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade fail to graduate on time from high school, a rate four times greater than that of proficient readers.

That, sadly, may not be the worst of it. Early childhood literacy skills are so critical that state officials in California and Indiana have reported that they calculate future prison needs, at least in part, by looking at schools’ early-elementary reading scores.

“Third grade reading levels as a prison population predictor …,” says Persichitte, shaking her head.

Let's work together

What is being done to improve the literacy skills of children in Pinedale? Newcastle? Saratoga? Do you know? Does anybody? “We know there are pockets of good work happening all over the state,” Persichitte says. “But nobody is sharing that information—sometimes not even within the same community.”

The story is about to change. The LRCC, upon its opening, will become the epicenter of literacy expertise in the far-flung Cowboy State, a place where ideas will be shared through the formation of partnerships with public and private schools, government agencies and community-based organizations, and then brought to life to provide the tools that are fundamental to every child’s development.

The College of Education has received lead gifts for the facility renovation from Mickey and Jeanne Klein, the Joe and Arlene Watt Foundation, Thea Stidum, and Don and Betty Walters. The campaign also has raised several endowment gifts, most notably from the John P. Ellbogen Foundation, for the ongoing support of the LRCC’s activities. Many private donations are also being matched by state appropriations.

The Design Studio Inc. of Cheyenne is the lead architect for the Annex renovation.

“I’m going to be very excited to see the new space,” says Mead, a big smile stretching again across her face. “Wyoming needs this. Desperately.” We surely remember The Enormous Potato, the children’s tale in which a farmer has to call for help—from his wife, then their daughter, their dog, their cat—to free an overgrown potato from the ground. They succeeded only by working together to conquer a task that first seemed impossible.

The potato in Wyoming is literacy. “I want to see the Literacy Research Center and Clinic become a stable source of support for literacy initiatives that are happening in our state, in every community,” says Persichitte. “If there is a literacy problem—with a child or in an organization or in a community—I hope the first thing anybody thinks is, ‘Let’s get in touch with the UW Literacy Research Center and Clinic.’

“We’re all working to help our children,” she says. “Let’s work together.”

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