Guest Column: Festival of Books aids community, workforce development year-round

2013-03-06T00:00:00Z Guest Column: Festival of Books aids community, workforce development year-roundBrenda Viner and Betty Stauffer Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Here's the story that we've been told: If a third-grader can read proficiently at the third-grade level, that student is seven times more likely to go to college.

What does that mean for our community and for workforce development in the next 20 years?

Over the last four years, the Tucson Festival of Books event has donated a total of $700,000 to support literacy programs including Literacy Connects, the nonprofit organization that provides a continuum of reading programs from birth to adulthood.

Now in its fifth year, the Tucson Festival of Books has become a weekend jampacked with workshops, panel discussions with authors, entertainment, and book signings. The University of Arizona graciously opens its campus to host the event, which attracted more than 120,000 people in 2012.

But the impact that this event has on our community continues throughout the entire year.

When all of the festival tents come down, the real work begins.

Imagine learning how to read to your child and improving your own writing and math skills so that you can help them with their homework. Some parents in our community are doing that and much more.

Literacy Connects launched Family Education Nights at Mission Manor Elementary School in 2011 and invited students to school with their parents two evenings a week. While the children are reading books with reading coaches in one classroom, their parents are working hard themselves in another classroom.

They're learning computer skills, writing résumés and practicing job interviewing skills. Some adults are taking a big leap and using the program to get help starting their own business.

Last fall, one parent passed her U.S. citizenship test because of the Family Education Nights program. Another parent who started her own housekeeping business last spring as a result of the program is now studying for her GED.

Mission Manor also saw an increase in its students' AIMS scores since the pilot program was implemented.

This happened at one school, in one neighborhood, in one year.

What would happen if we upped the ante?

Last year alone, the Tucson Festival of Books raised $200,000 for three community literacy programs. The Reading Seed program of Literacy Connects uses that funding to help to provide reading coaches to students in 114 elementary schools throughout Pima County. A sample of approximately 400 Tucson Unified School District students in the program showed that they learned 36 percent faster than their peers who did not have Reading Seed coaches.

The festival may be a free two-day event about books to many people, but there is a much bigger goal.

When you go to the Tucson Festival of Books Saturday and Sunday, you're helping to support a long-term investment in building our community and the workforce behind it. The co-founders of the festival envisioned this goal many years ago, and the 1,800 festival volunteers who donate their time understand it as well.

If we want to see the benefits of learning at all ages, it comes down to commitment and passion.

Remember that story about the importance of third-graders reading at the third-grade level?

Here's the story that we want to tell:

Once upon a time, a group of Tucsonans who believed that reading could change lives decided to visit the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. They wanted see what one of the best-attended book festivals in the country looked like in person.

The people behind the Los Angeles event told the visitors that a book festival couldn't be done by volunteers in Tucson. It just wouldn't work.

The Tucsonans, far from disillusioned, went back home.

They got together with some other people in the community and created what has become the fourth-largest book festival in the United States.

Sparked by commitment and passion, one community discovered firsthand that an investment in reading and literacy is and will always be a worthwhile one.

Betty Stauffer is the executive director of Literacy Connects. Brenda Viner is one of the co-founders of the Tucson Festival of Books.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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