Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop Schools, Sibley County

Feature Image: Desiree Ziegler and Tonia Schiro from Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop Schools choose books for their programming during SMIF’s Book Pick Up Day for Early Literacy Grant recipients.

The power of reading together

Joey Arceneau started bringing his kids to the Dad and Me Read classes at the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (GFW) schools when they were two years old. The program, which is offered through Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) for three weeks in the winter, encourages dads to spend time reading with their kids – and they get to walk away with free books.

“It’s a great way for dads to spend time with their children and read to them,” said Tonia Schiro, Early Childhood Coordinator for the district, and administrator of the Dad and Me Read class. Once a week the dads come with their kids and a teacher reads a book with them at circle time, and then they discuss it as a group. “When we got to each class the books were sitting there and the kids were all excited when they saw them,” said Arceneau, who brought each of his kids to the program through age five.

Literacy Grant Red Bird Hills

A father reads to his child.

The books, which are distributed to organizations like GFW schools through Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s (SMIF) Early Literacy Grant Program, are given out to the families for free to take home and read each week. If reading requirements are met, the kids get to go home with a bonus book at the end of the session. “We find that kids will bring back the book from that first week and read it to their teacher,” said Schiro. “They’re so excited to show that they’ve been reading with their dad, and their dads are excited to see that their kids can read the book. We want parent and child reading experiences to be enjoyable, as this can influence children’s future attitudes about reading, as well as help build their confidence as readers.”

Early reading for early development

Minnesota Early Learning Standards dictate that the ability to read by the end of third grade is critical to future academic success. According to Minnesota Compass, 56 percent of third graders in SMIF’s 20-county region are proficient in reading. This is a number that SMIF wants to see increase. “With SMIF’s Early Literacy Grants, we are trying to get books into the homes of all children birth to five in our district,” said Schiro. “Our goals are to have children in our district meeting the Minnesota Early Learning Standards when they begin kindergarten.”

Literacy Grant Red Bird Hills

“Get Up and Go” was used in Schiro’s Dad and Me Read class to show the importance of physical activity.

In addition to distributing books through the Dad and Me classes, Schiro brings books from the grant to the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) Program at the County twice a month during the school year. Schiro organizes activities for the children to do while their parents are meeting with the health care providers at WIC. “We had a family that was so happy to receive a book at WIC that the mom cried,” said Schiro. “Some of these kids have little to no books in their home, so it’s a treat for them to leave with their book.”

Children who are introduced to reading early on tend to read earlier and excel in school better than children who are not exposed to books at a young age. According to Reach out and Read Minnesota, reading aloud to young children promotes the development of a part of the brain that is associated with learning to read. “Reading also influences language development and all foundations of their learning,” said Schiro. “When a parent reads to their child it exposes them to new vocabulary that they don’t hear every day.”

Literacy Grant Red Bird Hills

Early Literacy Grant recipients look through the book options during SMIF’s Book Pick Up Day.

Reading storybooks in particular has an impact on children’s success in reading classes at school. “The problem we are finding is many children come from homes or cultures where storybook reading is not happening as much as it use to,” said Schiro. With the increase in technology use, many children and families are spending more time on phones, tablets and playing video games. Reading, for some, has fallen to the wayside. “The Early Literacy Grant allows us to get books back into the homes and spark an interest with families to read again.”

Local publishers supporting the region

The GFW schools have received books through the Early Literacy Grant every year since 2006, for a total of 2,135 books. The grant is designed to support early literacy efforts that enhance school readiness for children birth to age five. Awardees, which include schools, libraries and service groups, receive an allotted number of books that can be used in the classroom and given out to families to bring home.

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Christie Skilbred and Gail Beer from Capstone help load books into cars during SMIF’s Book Pick Up Day.

The program started in 2003, spurred on by a partnership with Capstone, a Mankato-based publisher of children’s books. After 15 years of partnering with Capstone on this grant, and more than 90,000 books later, another Mankato-based publisher, ABDO, joined the partnership. The grant program has distributed a total of 137,383 books to children in the region since its inception.

The majority of the books from these publishers get distributed through the Early Literacy Grant program. However, the publishing companies donate additional books to support SMIF’s commitment to early literacy throughout the region. An additional 119,447 books have been used by AmeriCorps LEAP Initiative members in classrooms, given to teachers at the Early Childhood Care Conference and distributed to child care providers through the Quality Child Care Program.

Giving books a home

Each summer the recipients of the Early Literacy Grant get to pick up their books during SMIF’s book pick up day. Thousands of books are laid out on tables, and the grant recipients get to “shop” for the books they want off the tables based on the number that they were awarded. “The fabulous thing about the Early Literacy Grant is the variety of fun books to choose from,” said Schiro. “Board books, search and find books and holiday books.”

Literacy Grant Red Bird Hills

Bilingual books are available to Early Literacy Grant recipients.

Bilingual books are also available at the book pick-up. “We have a lot of Spanish-speaking families in our district and we find that there is a gap with the level of reading between those students and our English-speaking students,” said Schiro. “When we are able to get books into the hands of our Spanish-speaking children and families that are written in the language they can speak and read, we are hopeful that they will spend more time reading and enjoying books together.”

The GFW schools were awarded another 200 books in the 2019 grant round. “We so appreciate the books and our families do too, and it shows on the faces of the kids and their excitement that they get to go home with those books,” said Schiro. “By distributing the variety of fun books that are available with the Early Literacy Grants, we get books into the hands of children and we anticipate families will be as excited as we are about reading.”

This story is from SMIF’s 2019 Impact Report. To read the other stories from the report, and to view maps showing the impact of these programs, visit