By Jamie Davis

Rockbridge County will see a progressive education initiative in the new year that is being called “Rockbridge Reads.”

The United Way of Rockbridge and the Rockbridge County School System are targeting early education as a means to improve school readiness and student performance in schools, especially for those from homes that are less book-rich.

“We’re looking at trying to change the culture of reading at a very early age,” says United Way board member Kelly Fujiwara.

Details of the program are still being finalized, but one aspect of community outreach is set. Ryan Congdon, Youth Program Specialist at the Rockbridge Regional Library, has joined the effort.

Congdon leads “Story Time with Mr. Ryan” at the library, and he is also now contracted with Rockbridge Reads. Congdon will take library read-alouds out of the library and into the community twice a  week.

Fujiwara says the goal is to take successful programming from the library and deliver it in places where there is no library. Fairfield and the Natural Bridge area have been selected as the initial target sites.

Fujiwara and Cindy Crance, director of instruction for the county schools, are still looking for space to host this project. Fujiwara and Crance are also working to provide food along with these literacy events. Crance said they are hoping for a firehouse, church or even a business to provide space where Congdon will read and model behaviors for children and their caregivers.

Explicit instruction and modeling offered at the read-aloud are aimed at teaching not just children, but parents too. “The kids will jump in,” says Fujiwara. “It’s the parents who kind of sometimes will sit in the back at story hour.”

Even getting books in the hands of toddlers and pre-school students will make a difference in early literacy. “There are many residences in the county that have no books,” says United Way of Rockbridge President Mike Smitka.

According to Crance, a second part of the United Way initiative will address this issue. Students attending these events will be given packed book bags to take home.

The program signifies a change in the face that the local United Way wants to show to the Rockbridge area.

Traditionally, the United Way has been a conduit for a community’s philanthropic support for local charities and non-profit agencies.

But in an era when many of these agencies are raising their own funds, and donors are more selective about which agencies they want to support, the United Way of Rockbridge decided it needed to initiate a signature outreach effort to inspire donors to give more.

There is no paid staff member to oversee the new program and no grant money backing it up, so support by donors in the coming months could determine  whether the initiative survives.

The United Way, in special mailings that went out this month, has asked current donors for an additional 10 percent in their gifts to support the education initiative.

“We might be able to raise some additional monies if we were able to give a compelling reason,” says Smitka. “If the United Way is able to reach this goal, it will put $25,000 behind Rockbridge Reads.”

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