Building a strong reading continuum in Durham

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow
Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow

In Durham County, more than 1 in 4 children live in poverty and too many of our fourth graders are not proficient in one of the greatest predictors of high school graduation and later success: reading.

In fact, only 47 percent of Durham’s children are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

Increasing the number of children reading at grade level has been identified as a priority in the State of Durham’s Young Children report. It is essential that we invest in programs that are researched and proven to help our children meet educational milestones.

Innovation is all around us in Durham — our citizens, organizations and agencies are doing great work to move the needle for families who live here. We know investing in early literacy builds a strong foundation for life success. A child’s chance to reach his or her potential is greatly impacted by what happens before he or she utters a word. Helping parents support their child’s learning from birth should be among the highest of priorities for all of us.

Several agencies in Durham County are working together to build systems of support for families and meeting parents where they are to promote sharing language and bonding with their children daily.

Reach Out and Read Carolinas is an evidence-based intervention integrated into six medical clinics in Durham County designed to foster intentional skill-building in parents, resilience in families, and positive bonding between children and caregivers. When a family comes in for a health supervision visit at one of these clinics, medical providers begin their visits by bringing the family an age appropriate book and use this tool to talk about the importance of reading and to build early literacy promotion skills in families.

Durham County invested $25,000 in Reach Out and Read Carolinas for a six-month pilot. This partnership is the first of its kind in the state and demonstrates a vision for a public-private partnership that leverages the work of multiple agencies and supporters to ensure that all Durham County children grow up with books, healthy and ready to learn.

Also making Durham unique is the degree to which agencies understand the need to work together to create a continuum of services for families.

Currently,a literacy coordinator from Durham’s Partnership for Children assists with logistics at some pediatric clinics to make sure they have enough Reach Out and Read books and enhances the waiting rooms with literacy-rich information. Further, the Partnership provides information and registration opportunities for families to join Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and receive free books in the mail at home. At other clinics, families are greeted in the waiting room by a book shelf of free, gently-used books from Book Harvest that help set the stage for conversations about literacy.

The Durham Library’s Bookmobile visits two of Durham’s pediatric clinics twice a month and helps families sign up for a library card and start checking out books that day. Pediatric clinics also provide information and resources to help connect families with services.

All these groups working together build a system of care that reinforces messages about reading, builds home libraries, and sets young children on a path towards success.We are hopeful that a full year of funding by Durham County in the upcoming year and private investments will yield strong evidence of the efficacy of this strong early literacy partnership.

Ellen Reckhow is a Durham County commissioner. Ellie Erickson is an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Duke Pediatrics Division of Primary Care. Callee Boulware is the executive director of, Reach Out and Read Carolinas.