MIAMI — Miami’s Head Start program has introduced a new approach to reading. “Raising A Reader,” exemplifies the significance of reading at a young age while spending time with family.

The Head Start program is a federally funded program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low-income, preschool-aged children and their families.

“Raising A Reader's” mission is to engage caregivers in a routine of book sharing with their children from birth through age eight to foster healthy brain development, healthy relationships, a love of reading and the literacy skills critical for school success.

The new reading initiative is being implemented in all of the Head Start programs in the tri-county area including Ottawa, Delaware and Craig Counties. At the Miami location, Head Start serves 394 children, ages three to five years old. The program officially started in Miami on March 1.

School readiness is a large component of Head Start, according to Head Start Education manager Mari Carrillo.

“We are geared to preparing kids for public school and I think we are the foundation to what the students will learn there,” Carrillo said. “The expectations of public schools are so much higher now, than they were 10 years ago. We felt that implementing this program would only better prepare these students for the future. We want them to be ahead of the game before they start public school.

“The public schools have accelerated reader and I make the point that their ability to start reading begins now. Even though they’re still learning how to read or recognize their name, they could do so much with a book. They can read to you, use their imagination and come up with their own stories, just by looking at the photos.”

“Raising A Reader” helps parents develop the habit of sharing books and gives families the opportunity to build a positive connection with their children. With a signed permission slip from the guardian, children have the opportunity to take home a red bag full of four, high quality picture books. The bag also includes an instructional DVD for parents about reading aloud with their children.

First, the family will attend a parent orientation presentation discussing the program and then they sign a contract allowing their child to participate.

“Once the parents are knowledgeable about the program, they follow through with that commitment of signing up their children,” Carrillo said. “It’s also about getting the parents involved and wanting to participate. If the parents aren’t on board, we wouldn’t be able to move forward with this program.”

“Raising A Reader” also gives children the opportunity to spend more time with their family while showing off their reading skills.

“There are children who have only read the book a few times, but they can recite the book verbatim and that’s the spark we want to create,” Carrillo said. “It also gives them that bonding time with the parent, even if it’s only five minutes a day.”

Once the red bags are administered, the bags will then be rotated multiple times throughout a 10-week rotation.

“Kids don’t receive the same books over again in rotation,” Kathy Wilson, Family and Community Partnership (FCP) manager, said. “You have a rotation of different books.”

Even bilingual children will receive books in two languages.

“The books that the Spanish children are receiving are printed in both languages,” Carrillo said. “If your child got a book that was in Spanish, it’s also printed in English.”

The program will start at the beginning of each school year and the books will be rotated throughout the year.

“Each classroom has a set of 100 books and they get rotated,” Rocky Barnes, Head Start Center director, said. “The DVD explains different ways on how to read to the children.”

Once the books are finished rotating at the end of the school year, the students will be eligible for a library card and will receive a blue bag of their own to carry library books.

“The parents will be asked if they have a library card and out of the 394 students we have, only 100 may have a library card,” Carrillo said. “Our goal at the end of this program is to have all 394 students with library cards. We’ll give them the application and the resources they need.”

Carrillo said the students, parents and teachers have been enthusiastic thus far with the new program.

“I love the idea,” Barnes said. “When we first started it, I knew it was going to be a hassle keeping that many bags in each classroom, but the teachers have adapted very well. They have taken it on and have done a great job. We have almost 100 percent of the kids participating now. We’re working on getting the rest of them.”

The most recent book rotation began Monday and the children held up their books with open mouths and eager eyes.

Four-year-old Mady Ramsey said he reads the books with his mother.

“I like the pictures inside of the books,” Ramsey said. “My mom and I read all four books in one day.”

Kayd Fields, 5, said he can read the books all by himself.

“I know how to read,” Fields said. “I read to my mom. ‘Loose Tooth’ was my favorite book I read last week.”

Linda Harrison, Head Start certified teacher, said her students are enthusiastic about the new program.

“My students come up to me and tell me what books they read,” Harrison said. “They told me what the books were about and the younger siblings can even learn from their older siblings.”

Head Start will begin open enrollment for the 2016-2017 school year on March 23. For more information, contact Miami Head Start at 918-542-9642 or visit their website at www.grandheadstart.com.

Kimberly W. Barker is a staff writer for the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at kbarker@miaminewsrecord.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiamiNews_hound.