Nebraska Department of Education gives $2 million to deliver early childhood books statewide

Oct. 30, 2023, 4 p.m. ·

NDE Commissioner Maher Reading to a Class
Nebraska Department of Education Commissioner Brian Maher reads to a classroom at Educare Indian Hill in Omaha. The department announced a $2 million commitment to Nebraska Growing Readers, which is a program sending books to early childhood centers across the state. (Photo by Jolie Peal, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Department of Education announced a $2 million commitment to Nebraska Growing Readers, which will distribute books to early childhood centers across the state.

Mary Jo Pankoke is the CEO of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation which is partnering with the state. She said one of the goals of the program is to address book deserts. The book distribution began at Educare Indian Hill in Omaha, and will expand to 18 other sites statewide.

“It is our understanding that this will be one of the largest book distributions ever in Nebraska, and possibly the entire country,” Pankoke said.

Unite for Literacy is a book provider, and they are working with the state to provide nonfiction books. The books can be distributed through providers like Educare Indian Hill or families can directly order the books.

Josh Cramer, executive vice president at the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, said they hope to get 100 books per year to each family to combat the book deserts across Nebraska.

“That's one of the most important parts of this project is actually not having this be symbolic, but trying to get as close as we can to about 100 books per family per year, because that's a turning point in the research in terms of creating a lifelong habit of reading,” Cramer said.

The program chose the first 18 sites from data on book deserts in the state and from volunteers. According to Cramer, Educare Indian Hill in Omaha is the first site to receive books because of their focus on early literacy.

“The values of the Educare concept is to bring children and families together to read,” Cramer said. “We thought this was a wonderful place to start.”

As part of the launch, Nebraska Department of Education Commissioner Brian Maher, Nebraska’s First Lady Suzanne Pillen and Pankoke visited a classroom at Educare Indian Hill. Maher read a book from the new program teaching words like “among” and “across” to the eight students in the class.