Heinen: The Read Up! Madison project

Tackle local illiteracy with summer reading plans
Heinen: The Read Up! Madison project

I’ve always been a little curious, and a little envious, of book reviewers who recount being unable to put a book down before finishing it. Where do they find the time to devote to a non-stop, cover-to-cover book reading?

I think I’ve done it twice, once when I accompanied my wife to a conference she was speaking at, and again just recently during a day in planes and airports. And that book, “I Am Not I” by the American philosopher Jacob Needleman, was, for the most part, a dialogue in which I flipped the pages pretty quickly. None the less, it was a pleasure to get lost in a book for hours, and I was reminded how important reading has been in my life. What I know of the world, what I can dream up in my imagination, what inspires me and intrigues me and makes me smile and cry, has been influenced by books and the time spent reading them. I can’t imagine life without books.

Which is why I find literacy to be such an important issue. More than 20 years of work on behalf of the Schools of Hope project has convinced me how essential it is to be reading at a fourth-grade level by fourth grade. But I’ve only recently considered the extraordinary challenges of adult illiteracy and dyslexia. It’s a bigger problem than most of us are aware. But it’s the importance of making sure our kids learn to read that prompted the Read Up! Madison project. I’m happy to say we are back for a second year to support the summer reading program.

There are a couple of compelling components of this project for me. The first is certainly increasing the number of kids who receive free books and guidance from adults who can make summer reading an even richer experience. A couple of years ago, Wisconsin State Journal editor John Smalley heard something at a United Way meeting that caused him to worry about the future of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s summer reading program. In the spirit of Schools of Hope, a civic journalism project, he approached WISC-TV Vice President and General Manager Tom Keeler about partnering to raise awareness and resources to ensure Read Up continued and perhaps expanded. Research and data showed young people who participated in the strategic enrichment program–in which they received five free books of their choosing with the help of librarians and reading specialists–came back from summer vacation with reading skills intact or enhanced. In other words, no “summer slide.” If two summer sites and 418 students served is good, four sites and 585 kids served is better. That’s what we achieved with your help, with $88,000 in donations, last year. This year we’re shooting for $100,000 to expand to six sites and 1,000 elementary school children.

Also compelling is the partnerships that make Read Up work. This includes MMSD and Madison School and Community Recreation, but also Madison Public Library, the Madison Reading Project, United Way of Dane County, and the many generous businesses and individuals who contribute. Remarkably Jane Doughty and her husband made another $5,000 challenge grant to Read Up. The Wisconsin State Journal and WISC-TV made corporate gifts as well.

I had the pleasure in early April of covering this topic on my Sunday “For The Record” program on WISC-TV, when my guests included Terri Harper and her three children. Harper works for MSCR and she and sixth-grader Antwanette, fifth-grader Damarion and second-grader Ny’Liyah do Read Up together. They read, ask each other questions and have fun. Listening to them talk about Read Up is enough to convince anyone of the importance of the program. You can find donation information on www.channel3000.com.