Baby Bulldogs Boost Early Learning and Literacy in Lanier County

Area children received books including The Magician’s Hat, written by Valdosta native Malcolm Mitchell, a Super Bowl-winning football player who serves as executive director of Share the Magic Foundation.

Enrollment in the Lanier County School System grew by nearly 200 children in just two months this spring. What could possibly cause such rapid growth in a county with just over 10,000 residents? The launch of the Baby Bulldogs program in February.

The Lanier County Family Connection Birth to Five Team launched this effort—in partnership with the school district, public library, health department, Head Start, Carol’s Kidz Daycare, and Lakeland Family Dentistry—to connect infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children and their families with local schools as early as possible to ensure children have access to learning and enrichment opportunities to prepare them for success in grade school.

Georgia KIDS COUNT data showed that just one-third of 3- and 4-year-olds in Lanier were enrolled in preschool or child care, and pre-K and kindergarten teachers experienced the impact of this lack of early learning when they welcomed new students each fall. The Collaborative and community partners sought out a way to increase enrollment in early learning programs while also providing parents with the knowledge and skills to help boost their children’s learning and healthy development at home.

When Amy Griffin, Lanier County Family Connection coordinator, found Cook County’s Baby Hornets Facebook page, the idea was formed to launch a similar program to reach Lanier’s preschoolers. The school district had some funding through the Literacy for Learning, Living, and Leading in Georgia (L4GA) grant to invest in efforts to engage the birth-to-5 population. This was used to purchase tote bags filled with stuffed bulldog toys, books, crayons, coloring books, and learning activities for families.

“This program promotes language development in the home during the first years of a child’s life, and this is of the utmost importance,” said Gene Culpepper, associate superintendent at Lanier County Schools. “Improving early literacy in the home has a direct and substantial impact on a child’s success throughout their educational career. Lanier County Family Connection is making this happen.”

The Collaborative launched the program in late February, utilizing Facebook to get the word out. With around 750 children under the age of 5 living in the county in 2010, Griffin was surprised when 83 signed up for Baby Bulldogs on the very first day.

In addition to the filled tote bag, families receive text and email updates about pre-K registration, Kindergarten Round-Up, and other news from the school district and community partners. Plans are being made to host family friendly events and workshops on early brain development and literacy.

“We’re a rural community without a lot of resources for families, so we were expecting there to be a lot of interest—but we were still shocked by those early numbers as news about it spread rapidly by word of mouth,” Griffin said.

Once enrolled, children receive a new book each month centered on a special theme, such as gardening in May. Children who are already enrolled in Head Start, pre-K, or kindergarten are also invited to sign up for the program and receive the books and materials. School staff send home registration forms and share information with parents about the program.

“When I heard about the Baby Bulldogs program, I couldn’t wait to sign my daughter up,” said Kayla Faircloth, Lanier County Middle School teacher and mother to 4-year-old Audrey. “The books are engaging and appropriate to her reading level, and Audrey looks forward to getting her new book each month. As a reading teacher, I know that kids in Lanier County will benefit from this program by improving their reading skills and increasing their enthusiasm for reading.”

Baby Bulldogs is part of a growing trend across Georgia, as more communities and school districts are embracing the idea of “enrolling” children beginning at birth. In addition to the Cook County Baby Hornets, which kicked off in 2019, Jones County launched Growing Greyhounds in 2018 and Heard County established Baby Braves in 2017.

As Lanier County Family Connection and partners continue to look for new and innovative ways to support children’s success, they are already reaching out to the local ministerial association with the goal of engaging church nursery volunteers who can reinforce these efforts, acting as trusted messengers to share tips and information with parents.

“Baby Bulldogs is a great way for Lanier County to find families who may not have their kids enrolled in child care or preschool,” said Griffin. “In South Georgia, many families are in church every Wednesday and Sunday. By targeting church nurseries, we can reach these families twice a week. We’re always looking for new ways to reach families where they are and to spread this information through local businesses and word of mouth. That’s really important in rural communities like Lanier County.”