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Children listen to a librarian read during story time at the Milton-Freewater library in 2016.

MILTON-FREEWATER — Getting tiny tots into their community library is paying off big by the time they enter school.

That’s the finding of a recent analysis by Ready 2 Learn, a program for children birth to age 5 in five Eastern Oregon counties, including Umatilla.

Under the funding umbrella of the State Library of Oregon, the Ready 2 Learn Coalition launched in 2010 to increase kindergarten readiness, literacy and an eagerness to learn. Milton-Freewater’s public library began participating in the program three years ago, when Erin Wells came on as director.

The program is now in place in 29 Eastern Oregon libraries, in communities ranging in population from 187 to 17,000, with Milton-Freewater in the top five libraries seeing the most active participation.

It works like this: Parents register their kids under age 6 at the local library. The new library users get a card of their own and a tote bag.

Each time a child checks out a book or participates in a library program, such as story hour, they earn a chance to win a prize.

Those prizes are education-based and complement monthly program themes, like February’s building construction focus, and always include a book, Wells said.

The Milton-Freewater library has about 250 enrollees, but Wells would like to see every area child under age 6 join in.

“I think that’s about 600 kids,” she said.

Wells and other librarians have good reason to encourage participation, according to the latest evaluation of Ready 2 Learn. Of the nearly 3,000 children who have enrolled in the program since 2010 — and most do so at just under 3 years old — they checked out an average of 55 books over 22 months or so.

Frequent Ready 2 Learn readers who went to the library at least every month in 2017 checked out an average of 134 books and visited their library about 21 times last year.

That’s important in Eastern Oregon, where less than half of children under age 6 attend early education programs to help prepare them for kindergarten, Wells said.

Some families can’t afford preschool, and some live in remote locations and can’t easily transport their kids to such programs, she pointed out.

But almost any family can get to their public library, which is free and open to all, Wells noted.

Data published earlier this year shows kids who went through the reading program in Pendleton, LaGrande and Hermiston had higher scores on both upper- and lowercase letter recognition, as well as English letter sound recognition in kindergarten readiness tests.

The Ready 2 Learn program originally included some college savings scholarships, and organizers are hoping to offer that again in the future, Wells said.

In the end, many Milton-Freewater parents were already bringing babies, toddlers and preschoolers to the library, she added.

“And now they’re getting rewarded for that.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.