$2 million aims to boost reading skills of Nebraska preschoolers, eliminate ‘book deserts’

By: - October 30, 2023 6:23 pm

Brian Maher, Nebraska’s education commissioner, reads a book to a group of mostly 3-year-olds Monday as he and others launched a statewide project to boost reading skills of pre-kindergarteners. The kickoff was at an Educare of Omaha at Indian Hill, 3110 W St. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Seeking to eliminate “book deserts” in Nebraska, the State Department of Education has directed $2 million toward getting more than a half-million books into households with the youngest Nebraskans.

The Nebraska Growing Readers effort kicked off Monday with a batch of books distributed to Educare of Omaha at Indian Hill, one of 18 urban and rural child care providers and other statewide sites that will help get the books to families.

One of the many books to be distributed to Nebraska families a part of a project that aims to prepare preschoolers to read. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

While at the South Omaha stop, a team of education advocates mingled with the target audience — pre-kindergarteners — and Education Commissioner Brian Maher even took a few minutes to read a book to a group of 3-year-olds.

“Reading is the foundation to everything we do,” Maher said.

“What it boils down to is, ‘How developed is your vocabulary?’ Reading and being around language helps tremendously … so you can read, be literate and then begin to think critically.”

Among those accompanying Maher was Mary Jo Pankoke, president and chief executive of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, and Suzanne Pillen, wife of Gov. Jim Pillen, who has been visiting classrooms and working on issues to promote literacy.

The foundation is partnering in the project, along with the Statewide Family Engagement Center and Unite for Literacy. A state education spokesman said the $2 million comes from the department’s pandemic-related federal allotment of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.

Pankoke said part of the objective is to get parents and family members involved in reading with children on a daily basis.

Available books are generally filled with pictures, ranging in topics from family to animals, organizers said, and are accessible in Spanish and other languages if desired.

The initial phase is to reach 16,000 children, 12,000 households and 1,000 early childhood providers, and organizers said they hope to get a series of books into each household. 

Each of the distribution sites is to receive technical assistance. And the project is to use data and interactive mapping tools to monitor progress and provide feedback for stakeholders and child care providers.

The overriding goal is to make Nebraska one of the nation’s extensive “book gardens” and to eliminate book deserts.

According to a Unite for Literacy map, an estimated 32% of homes in Nebraska have more than 100 books. That compares to a nationwide share of 31%. The 100-book threshold is viewed as an important indicator and predictor of school success.


Suzanne Pillen, (at right) wife of Nebraska’s governor, visits a classroom at the Educare of Omaha at Indian Hill, where a team of literacy advocates launched the Nebraska Growing Readers initiatiave. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.