Burke County Literacy Team Provides Resources and Hope

by Madeline Zupko

Burke County is home to 4,206 students in pre-K through 12th grade. During the pandemic, their families faced job loss, lack of food resources and funds to pay rent and utilities, and social isolation—especially among senior citizens. They also had limited access to internet and technology as well as personal protective equipment (PPE). More than a year later, community members continue to struggle.

Beyond that, according to Georgia KIDS COUNT data, 24.7% of third graders in Burke County achieved proficient or above on the Georgia Milestones ELA assessment in 2019—substantially less than Georgia’s average of 42%.

“Prior to the pandemic, some community members were facing the same issues—but the pandemic heightened the need for resources,” said Teresa Carter, Communities in Schools of Burke County Family Connection coordinator. “The pandemic caused things to change in our community. Some students are still learning virtually, families still require assistance with rent and utilities, and although individuals are getting vaccinated, it’s important to keep PPE like hand sanitizer and masks handy.”

Through the Get Georgia Reading at Home initiative, the Georgia Family Connection Collaborative received Getting Ready Guides to deliver to 196 of its most vulnerable students along with a $1,200 grant to create literacy kits including children’s books, flash cards, and crayons. Children also received onesies and T-shirts featuring the message “Read To Me.”

This summer, Burke County parent Shanique Rhodes is continuing to use the resources she received for her kindergartner, Aliyah, who learned both virtually and in person during the 2020-21 school year.

“Aliyah was having trouble focusing with remote learning, and there was a little too much leniency at home because I wasn’t by her side all the time,” said Rhodes. “The Getting Ready Guide is my favorite, because it provides examples of what you can do to help your child better understand the reading and activities you can do together. But I think Aliyah was even more excited about the books. Every time I turn around, she wants a book.”

Carter has seen firsthand how families are benefiting from receiving the literacy kits. “The resources provide parents with additional guidance on a variety of fun, interactive ways to engage their children in an effort to share the joy of reading while also helping them learn critical skills,” she said.

Being one of five pilot counties for the Get Georgia Reading at Home initiative led to Burke County becoming a Get Georgia Reading—Campaign for Grade-Level Reading community and the establishment of the Burke County Literacy Team, which also includes the City of Waynesboro, Burke County Head Start and Early Head Start, Sardis-Girard-Alexander Elementary School, the Burke County Public Library, and Walmart.

Each Friday, families drive through the Early Head Start center to pick up educational, health, and meal items including diapers, pull-ups, wipes, tissues, toothpaste, toothbrushes, cups, paper towels, gloves, baby formula, milk, and infant and toddler foods.

“Since we’re offering fully virtual services to our families, we provide items to families that a child would normally use as if services were in person,” said Clarice Jones, Early Head Start director. “The literacy kits allowed us to add more materials to our weekly ‘Friday Family Pick Up.’ We also added a meal-time learning activity to the literacy kit, and we’ll continue to use the materials to promote early literacy, math, science, and social-emotional, physical, and cognitive development to promote school readiness and implement the Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards (GELDS).”

The Collaborative has a strong partnership with Early Head Start, which serves as an intervention program for income-eligible infants, toddlers, and pregnant women. “The top needs of children ages 0 – 3 and the pregnant mothers we serve is early literacy, mental health, nutrition, and ongoing support from community leaders,” said Jones.

The Burke County Literacy Team is ready to tackle challenges faced by young learners and their families. “Our team will keep meeting and discussing ideas on how we will continue to get Burke reading,” said Carter.

Georgia Family Connection Collaboratives in Burke, Decatur, Hancock, Mitchell, and Sumter counties are participating in the Get Georgia Reading at Home pilot program, which provides materials to families that live in communities with low broadband access and a high prevalence of COVID-19 infection. Learn more.