By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Debbie Niederhauser has a big dream. She'd like to see every child be on the same level when they enter kindergarten.
"They are big dreams, but kids are worth that," said Niederhauser, the regional superintendent of schools for Adams and Pike counties.
With a financial boost from the United Way of Adams County and groundswell of support from business and community leaders, a new learning initiative should help Niederhauser realize her dream by shrinking the performance gap among preschool children.
Niederhauser was one of several speakers who addressed a room filled with educators and area leaders Wednesday at Transitions of Western Illinois. They unveiled a new program called "Ready. Set. Grow. Adams County." The goal of the program is to give young children access to books and other learning tools so they'll be more ready for school once they enter the kindergarten ranks.
Statistics compiled after a 2012 assessment of 256 3-year-olds at Quincy's Early Childhood and Family Center point to how necessary extra attention to language and literacy development are for young children. The assessment found that 90 percent of the children did not recognize their own name. Eighty percent didn't recognize any numbers, and 78 percent didn't recognize any letters.
"Anything we can do to help kids zero to 5 will make a difference through 12th grade and beyond," said Julie Schuckman, director of the Early Childhood and Family Center. "The more we can do, the more ready they will be."
The United Way has given the project $20,000 in seed money. It has committed to giving more money to the project for two more years. Even though this is technically the planning year for the initiative, three projects have already been launched.
Nurses with Blessed Beginnings at Blessing Hospital are working with parents of newborns with a "Let's Talk" project. The nurses remind parents that's important to engage their children with talk. The nurses are sending each newborn home with a box of baby wipes that have a "Let's Talk" reminder affixed to them.
The Adams County Health Department is using grant money it received from the Community Foundation of the Quincy Area to start "Reading: A Healthy Start." Health Department nurses distribute books when they do home visits with young children, from newborn through age 2. Nearly 2,000 books were distributed in 2012. The Health Department is also home to a volunteer reading program. Trained parent educators read with children when they are in the WIC waiting room at the Health Department.
"It's just electrifying when you see people that care about children," Niederhauser said. "It's so critical that we make a difference from infancy on because that's when the architecture for all future learning is formed. If we miss it then, it's hard to catch up."
This is one of three programs that the United Way has supplied financial backing for this year. It took the lead in a financial stability program that focuses on college and workforce readiness, and financial literacy for youth and adults. It also helped form an Adams County Health Department initiative aimed at nutrition and physical activity.
"We always have very enthusiastic and passionate volunteers with the United Way, but this is a different feeling because these volunteers get to be one on one with the children and the parents and families we're working with," said Cheryl Waterman, executive director of the United Way of Adams County. "That's way different than the committee work and fundraising work that a lot of our volunteers do. It's a whole different level of energy. It's exciting to see the community-level approach, the idea that we're doing something that's not taking a lot of money and will have a huge impact in the number of lives."