Advocating for Literacy | Eastern North Carolina Now

Publisher's note: The author of this post, Matt Smith, is a contributor to ECU News Services.

Terry Atkinson, an associate professor in East Carolina University’s College of Education, reads through a book in the college’s children’s library. Atkinson was named the recipient of the University Scholarship of Engagement Award for her work advancing childhood literacy in Pitt County. | Photos: Matt Smith

    Many educators can point to certain moments in their life when they knew they were destined to join their field.

    There were plenty of those moments for East Carolina University associate professor Terry Atkinson, but memories of weekend trips from Graham to Burlington with her father to a local children's library cemented her love for reading at an early age.

    "I wouldn't say there were books in our home," Atkinson said. "However, my dad, who worked swing shifts at a mill, took us most weekends to May Memorial Library in Burlington. That was many years ago, but I still remember walking through those doors and having all of these wonderful books just waiting for me. Those trips really unlocked my love of reading and made me realize that this huge world of books was there. I became a reader because of that."

Atkinson’s work at ECU spans 19 years and includes research with Golden LEAF Scholars, State Employees Credit Union Public Fellows Interns and ECU Honors students.
    Fortunately for the hundreds of students Atkinson has helped during her 19-year career with ECU's College of Education, her love of books never waned.

    Atkinson's work in the community was recognized by ECU with the University Scholarship of Engagement Award. The award recognizes one faculty member annually for sustained commitment to community engagement that positively impacts eastern North Carolina and promotes academic scholarship.

    Atkinson's research investigates ways to promote literacy in children ages 0-5, a pivotal time in childhood development that prepares students for success in the classroom. Fewer than 50% of Pitt County students enter kindergarten ready for school learning.

    Atkinson's desire to help better prepare Pitt County's future students connected her to like-minded researchers on campus, community partners across the region, and numerous families. That connection allows Atkinson to promote the idea that parents, caregivers and families serve as a child's first and most important language and literacy teachers.

    "Our research study is a five-year study into the effectiveness of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library," Atkinson said. "The imagination library provides a book a month to children up until their fifth birthday. My co-investigators and I are collecting data to determine what impact the program has on early childhood literacy in Pitt County.

    "We've had the opportunity to partner with selected Pitt County schools and collect parent survey data to see what reading activities they're conducting in their homes," she said. "The big question we ask is 'How does enrollment in imagination library and reading with your child impact children's kindergarten readiness?'"

    Along with assessing the effectiveness of the program, Atkinson assists families in registering for the imagination library. The program is funded by the North Carolina state legislature and administered statewide by Smart Start and locally by the United Way of Pitt County and the Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children. To date, the imagination library has gifted more than 132 million books since its inception in 1995.

    "What we're finding is very promising," Atkinson said. "Just from the baseline data to year one we've seen an increase in family reading every day. I get goosebumps when we visit a school or a community event and we see a kid get excited and yell, 'I know that book! I love that book!' That's when we know the program is making a difference."

    Despite nearly 30 years as an educator, Atkinson found an opportunity to give back even more to the community with the support of interim chancellor Ron Mitchelson. Mitchelson and his wife, Sarah, were early supporters of a community literacy coalition in Pitt County. When the coalition, now known as READ ENC, needed an executive director, Mitchelson turned to Atkinson.

    "Coalition leaders knew that if READ ENC was going to engage in an effort to support childhood literacy in Pitt County someone needed to organize the group," Atkinson said. "Dr. Mitchelson reassigned some of my university responsibilities and asked if I'd sign on as executive director for the coalition for two years.

    "I thought the task was gargantuan," she said. "I'd never done this type of work before."

    Despite the obstacles of leading a new initiative in a county of more than 10,000 children below the age of 5, Atkinson rose to the challenge. Using a combination of her work and research from other leaders in the field, she developed a community solutions action plan that focuses on three key elements of early childhood learning.

    "We have three prongs to our action plan," Atkinson said. "We want to increase kindergarten readiness, improve summer learning and bolster school attendance."

    READ ENC aims to increase the number of Pitt County Schools students reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

    Her position with READ ENC has presented Atkinson an opportunity to connect her research and academic background with work that helps families directly.

    "Every child's learning needs are different, but if there 'is one thing we share with families it's for parents to read 15 minutes a night to their child and remember the ABCs of Active Reading," Atkinson said. "A, ask questions; B, build vocabulary; and C, connect the reading to your child's world. Talking about what you've read with your child and connecting the book to what's going on in their lives is the ultimate goal."

    Atkinson hopes that other researchers take time to relate their work to the communities they serve.

    "It's a huge honor and I think it says a great deal for our university that our leaders realize that the investment in young children in our community impacts future students," she said. "If we want to transform the region we need to invest our time and money into them. It's a proven way to better our future."

    Terry Atkinson is the recipient of the 2018 Advocacy Award from the United Way of Pitt County and is a recognized member of the ECU Servire Society. Her research has included work with ECU's Golden LEAF Scholars, State Employees Credit Union Public Fellows Interns and ECU Honors students.
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