A city manager, a police chief and a couple of dozen preschoolers walked into Blackhawk Technical College on Wednesday for a far-from-ordinary story time.

The occasion kicked off a program that will put thousands of books into the hands of young children over the next three years.

Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther and Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore read two stories to children from YWCA Childcare and Janesville Community Day Care at the United Way Blackhawk Region’s launch of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

The Imagination Library is an international program that gives children a book every month from birth through age 5, said Mary Fanning-Penny, CEO of United Way Blackhawk Region.

The United Way chapter has invested $150,000 in a three-year rollout of the program, which will provide books to Janesville, Beloit and Edgerton children, Fanning-Penny said.

The nonprofit hopes to expand the program to more communities in the future.

Country singer Dolly Parton, who started the program more than 20 years ago, was inspired to promote early childhood literacy because her father was unable to read and write, according to a news release.

One of the Janesville School District’s five-year promises, established during the 2017-18 school year, is that 90 percent of third-graders will read at or above grade level.

Having good reading comprehension skills by third grade is an indicator of long-term literacy, said Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal, who spoke at the launch with Edgerton Superintendent Dennis Pauli and Beloit Superintendent Darrell Williams.

But reading has to start much sooner than that for a child to be successful, Pophal said.

Children who grow up with at least 20 books at home attend three more years of school than children from homes with no books, Fanning-Penny said, referring to research conducted by the University of Nevada.

Educators see significant gaps in reading skills among children of different socioeconomic backgrounds, Pophal said. Children from affluent families are exposed to, on average, 42 million words by age 3, while children from low-income families hear an average of 12 million words by that age.

Pophal commended the United Way for bringing the Imagination Library to Rock County. He believes it can help close literacy gaps.

“Early literacy is the human rights issue of our time,” Pophal said.

The United Way will work with organizations that support low-income families, such as libraries and food pantries, to get students enrolled in the program, Fanning-Penny said.

Parents in Janesville, Beloit and Edgerton also can enroll their children online.

The United Way will contribute $2.10 per child per month toward wholesale books and mailing costs, according to the release. The Imagination Library organization will cover overhead and administrative costs.

Children will receive their monthly books in the mail. All kids in the designated communities are eligible and can be enrolled at any age between birth and 5 years old.

The children and adult leaders who attended Wednesday’s launch listened—some more intently than others—to Luther and Moore read stories.

Luther read “Jake at Gymnastics” by Rachel Isadora in English and in Spanish. Moore read “Pretend” by Jennifer Plecas.

Both books are on Parton’s book list.

Moore read in a calm voice, engaging kids along the way. Curtis Luther read with a bit more charisma, adding facial expressions and different character voices.

The police chief shared a secret: Curtis Luther is a good book-reader because she has four kids of her own.

“I practiced on my youngest last night,” Curtis Luther said.

Reporter - Milton, Edgerton, Albany, Brodhead, Evansville, Footville, Orfordville, health

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