Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

A new report — “Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners,” calls on communities to form new and improved early education partnerships with museums and libraries.

“Libraries and museums have a long history of serving young children,” the report says. “They are virtually everywhere—from the smallest tribal community to the largest metropolitan area. As community repositories of literature, science and heritage, museums and libraries build on how children learn best, by designing and delivering content-rich, play-based experiences that link early learning best practice to books, exhibits and collections. Their resources prompt parents and caregivers to explore, pose questions, make connections, exchange information and ideas, and instill in young children not only a love of learning, but also the skills for learning.”

Yesterday, we reviewed the report. Today, we’re writing about two Massachusetts’ institutions – The Springfield City Library and the Boston Children’s Museum – that show how beloved cultural institutions can also be dynamic partners in improving early education – as well as K-12, adult and family programs.

Springfield City Library

Springfield is fulfilling the call for action made in the Growing Young Minds report by engaging the community and working with policymakers to make the library an even more vital community resource.

“We’ve been so much more intentional over the last few years about infusing literacy into everything we do,” Jean Canosa Albano, the library’s manager of public services, said in a recent interview. “Otherwise it’s going to be too late.”

Canosa Albano has seen her library system weather recent changes, including the closing of two branches. Thanks, however, to a project called “re:think Springfield City Library,” the city library system is recommitting to five core areas:

– early literacy

– adult literacy and lifelong learning

– after-school programs

– community and civic engagement

– workforce development

It’s a chance, Canosa Albano says, to shed old practices and develop new ones that have a bigger impact. The library has a 15 percent increase in its budget to do this work. Some of these funds will enable librarians to spend more time on the programs and outreach that make libraries so valuable.

Access, trust and choice are essential ingredients. “We’re here evenings and weekends,” Canosa Albano says. The library is increasing its branch hours to create more access for families. In addition, Canosa Albano adds, “We don’t call you into the principal’s office.” Instead the library gives visitors the freedom to learn about what they want.

Subtle things also matter. The teen reading club is important, because teenagers are role models for their younger siblings. While the summer reading club used to include raffles and prizes, now club members get a free book to take home. “That way everyone who participates wins,” Canosa Albano says.

The library is also part of the city’s Early Literacy Coalition, which includes a focus on family literacy projects that promote reading readiness among children from birth to age five. Other coalition members include local public television station WGBY as well as Head Start and other early childhood centers. The coalition is looking at ways to gather, use and share data; and to come up with methods – beyond test scores alone — to assess children’s progress.

The effort to boost early childhood literacy by engaging families is nicely summed up in the library’s mission statement:

Building connections – Broadening horizons – Strengthening community

The community source for literacy, technology and information

Boston Children’s Museum

“For us it’s icing on the cake,” Jeri Robinson of the Boston Children’s Museum says of the “Growing Young Minds” report.

The children’s museum has already spent decades providing the kind of high-quality early education programs that the report calls for. In fact the museum is featured in the report’s section on success stories. As for Robinson, a Boston native and the vice president of education and family learning, she will celebrate her 40th anniversary of working at the museum in September.

Given how much the museum has accomplished, Robinson moved on quickly in a recent interview to offer bold proposals for the future.

“To me, there should be a Boston birthright,” Jeri Robinson said, making the bold proposal that in Boston, a child’s library card should get them into the city’s cultural organizations for free. After all, Denver has a model of how to do it: the 5 by 5 program, which, according to its website, “provides Denver Head Start and Early Head Start children and their families with year-round access and educational opportunities at 15 of Denver’s cultural venues at no cost.” Those 15 include the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Children’s Museum.

In addition, New York has Cool Culture, a program that, according to its website, “helps over 50,000 income-eligible families access and enjoy 90 of NYC’s world-class cultural institutions for free, providing children with experiences that improve literacy and learning.” And of course, as Robinson pointed out, there is free admission to all the museums on the Mall in Washington, DC.

Some institutions are figuring out if and how they can be community partners, Robinson says. She praises the federal Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge grant won by Massachusetts for helping museums and libraries around the state become vibrant educational partners. The museum and the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care announced this initiative last year.

“Can we move the needle on adult behavior?” Robinson asked. Talking to parents is essential, Robinson says, because they can follow up with actions that will benefit their children.

Because some parents spend more time at the museum than at their children’s schools, the museum has, Robinson says, an obligation to raise awareness, provide resources, and offer models that help parents understand more about their children’s educations. One example is the Count Down to Kindergarten classroom where children and parents can discuss and practice basic school skills like taking turns and riding a school bus. Another family-based learning opportunity is the museum’s school readiness night, which is held throughout the year.

“What is it that we believe together?” Robinson asked, arguing that funders, nonprofits, and community members should come together to discuss how to fund effective programs that meet adults’ and children’s actual needs.

Robinson’s most powerful question: “What do communities need and deserve?” Robinson said that when she was young, “You could grow up poor in Boston and not know it,” because so many cultural institutions offered free or inexpensive admission.

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Museums, libraries and communities have the opportunity to create engaging environments. As Susan H. Hildreth, the director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, writes in the “Growing Young Minds” report, “Libraries and museums reach millions of children each year. It is exciting to bring that capacity into focus so that libraries and museums can more effectively engage in early learning strategies at the community, state and national levels.”