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Bella English

Budget ax falls on ‘Reach Out and Read’ again

22zobella - Dr. Laura Scharf of Quincy Pediatrics discusses the importance of reading to Lesley Vargas as her baby, Adela, investigates her new book. (Bella English)

Bella English

Dr. Laura Scharf of Quincy Pediatrics, right, discussed the importance of reading to Lesley Vargas as her baby, Adela, investigates her new book.

At six months, Adela Vargas was already devouring her first book -- literally. The book, “Read, Read Baby!” which Quincy Pediatrics had given her mother at a recent checkup, quickly found its way into the teething infant’s mouth.

Dr. Laura Scharf began her exam by speaking to Adela’s mom, Lesley, about books. “Reading is really an important way to encourage language,” she said. “Do you know where your local library is? Libraries have story time and other programs for children.”

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Scharf also asked about Adela’s bedtime routine. “She likes me to sing,” Lesley said.

The doctor nodded: “I would encourage you to start a bedtime story, too. I think I read ‘Goodnight Moon’ thousands of times to my children. They start to relax and get ready to sleep.”

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But the main motive for early reading is brain and language development. That’s why Quincy Pediatrics -- and 300 other sites across the state -- have been using Reach Out and Read, a program that partners with doctors to provide books, and advice, about the positive impact of reading to children every day.

It targets at-risk kids by providing a book at each pediatric visit from six months to five years, and by training doctors and nurses to encourage reading. By the time the children arrive at kindergarten, they each have 10 donated books from their 10 doctor visits: their own little library.

“Studies show that the majority of brain development, particularly in regard to language, takes place in the first three years,” says Alison Corning Clarke, the programs director for Reach Out and Read in Massachusetts and Connecticut. “Children who aren’t exposed to rich language and books at home are at much greater risk of difficulty reading when they get to kindergarten.”

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In Massachusetts, the program serves more than 200,000 children a year, reaching 94 percent of low-income parents. Nationally, it operates in every state, serving nearly 5 million families.

It was launched 25 years ago at Boston Medical Center and then exploded throughout the country. But now, this cost-effective program with proven success has recently been cut from the state budget. For the second year in a row, Governor Charlie Baker, a Harvard graduate, has vetoed funding for it.

The first time, the Legislature overrode the veto for the 2016 fiscal year, but in December 2016, the governor eliminated the program for fiscal 2017. As a result, the four regional coordinators have been laid off and Corning Clarke’s hours have been cut to 12 hours a week.

Laura Rigas, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education, said that “despite softening revenues” in the last half of 2016, the Baker administration “was pleased to provide a $116 million increase for Fiscal Year 2017 in direct aid for local schools.” She said such funding has helped low-income children and early-childhood education initiatives.

But if Baker decided to collect the $839,000 in fines he forgave Keolis Commuter Services for substandard performance in 2015, he could fund Reach Out and Read for children living in poverty, in under-performing school districts.

Reach Out and Read targets so-called “Gateway Cities,” former manufacturing towns that face economic and social challenges, including Fall River, New Bedford, Brockton, and Quincy. The program operates from the Berkshires to Boston, from Salem to Somerville.

“I can understand trimming, but it is baffling to me why a cost-effective program like this would be wiped out entirely,” says Corning Clarke, who lives in Dedham. In addition to losing staff, Reach Out and Read will be unable to provide books to the children, which it obtains at a discount from Scholastic Books. The books are multicultural and free of gender stereotypes.

Volunteers throughout the state hold book drives and provide gently-used books for pediatric waiting rooms; young patients are free to take them home, too.

In addition to training doctors, Reach Out and Read trains early childhood educators on talking to parents about developing literacy. Now those sessions are gone with the flick of the governor’s pen.

Dismayed doctors have contacted Corning Clarke asking what they can do to help. At Quincy Pediatrics, Scharf says the program is an integral part of her practice. “This is our 10th year, and patients love it, and parents love it,” she says. “Especially with younger parents, they haven’t really been thinking about how important reading is for brain development and school success.”

Scharf starts early, at an infant’s two-week checkup, talking about reading, singing, and talking to babies. “A child might not look at the book at one month, but she definitely hears the words,” she says. “At two months, she’s looking at the book.”

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement promoting literacy as “an essential component of pediatric primary care” and cited Reach Out and Read as a model.

Corning Clark is hoping it will be reinstated in a supplemental budget, but her book supply runs out in March.

Scharf is heartbroken, and believes her patients will be, too. “As soon as I walk into the room, the kids say, ‘What book do you have for me, Dr. Laura?’ For us to lose this program is huge.”

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.
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