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Elias was just a few weeks old when I first met him and his mother Mariana in 2016. Mariana’s schedule has always been a balancing act: a full-time student, who also works full time — all while raising her beloved son as a single parent. Over the years, Mariana and Elias have weathered their share of challenges, from short stints of homelessness to health scares.

Through it all, Elias has been bathed in love — and in words. Regardless of how busy their days are, or how weary Mariana is, she and Elias delight in a cherished daily routine of talking and reading together. Elias has grown accustomed to being surrounded by books from birth. Colorful, word-filled books are always at hand — stacks of them, nicely arranged on a bookshelf accessible to Elias at all times. Stories start and end each day, and they are also part of home routines. While doing laundry, dishes, even cooking, Elias listens to stories and lots and lots of words.

Mariana enrolled Elias in Book Harvest’s Book Babies program as a newborn. And in May of this year, Elias and his fellow members of the Book Babies Class of 2021 were awarded the first of what promises to be a series of diplomas celebrating their achievements.

Like Elias, his fellow Book Babies graduates have spent the first five years of their lives feasting on an abundance of books — and on all the words, ideas, and stories that cascade from them, fueling developing young brains and stoking fertile imaginations. The common thread among these bright young scholars? Their parents and caregivers have been accompanied by trusted literacy coaches who have visited them at home every quarter, sharing both a love of reading and the stacks of books that nourish a rich home literacy environment.

Elias and his fellow Book Babies graduates are now at the threshold of kindergarten — with an immense love for reading, and a genuine curiosity for learning and succeeding in school. These children are the future of North Carolina. And while I couldn’t be more hopeful, I am also aware that now more than ever this is an urgent matter.

The aftermath of COVID-19 is re-exposing the generations of inequities that make the path to kindergarten vastly different for North Carolina’s children based on race and family income. Having seen these stark divides, it is impossible for us to unsee them, nor should we.

To put it simply: the foundation for literacy begins at birth, in the home, with parents.

This is a truth we can, and must, act on. Pre-K and kindergarten are just too late to start laying the foundation for science-based reading instruction. A full 80% of brain development takes place in the first three years of life — before a child enrolls in pre-K. Even if the starting gate of pre-K were adequate, only 47% of North Carolina’s children are enrolled in NC Pre-K — so we are already, now, missing this source of nourishment for half of our future workforce.

I am inspired by the focus and attention my colleagues and our state’s leaders are paying to building a strong early childhood field, enacting policies and resources for the implementation of the science of reading, and supporting efforts to increase the number of North Carolinians who have a high-quality credential or a post-secondary school degree.

But I am frustrated and dismayed by the fact that we continue to ignore the once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity that the earliest years of life afford us, and the lifetime of benefits they can confer. The system of public education has become a kind of remediation, introducing children who have lived in book deserts to many of the most essential skills that undergird reading readiness — from how to hold a book and turn its pages to the authentic love of stories and exploration of imagination. 

At this moment, North Carolina is at a crossroads — one that demands bold leadership and investment to make Elias’ early years the norm for every child.

What I have witnessed with Elias and his peers is borne out by evidence. External evaluations of Book Babies demonstrate the potential our work has to transform outcomes for children, so that when they arrive at kindergarten, they are ready — to read, to learn, to succeed.

A foundation laid by hundreds of books and stories over these past five years will propel Elias through the kindergarten door this fall. This is the foundation that every child deserves, and that our state’s prosperous future demands.

We know what to do to secure this future. Will we choose to do it?

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Meytal Barak

Meytal Barak is the Associate Director for Early Literacy at Book Harvest, a North Carolina nonprofit based in Durham. Learn more at www.bookharvest.org. Since 2011, children and families in North Carolina have harvested more than 1.5 million books to take home and keep for their very own, building home libraries. Barak is among the first cohort of the LatinxEd Fellowship, devoted to positive racial and ethnic identity development for Latinx families in the rural South, and actively working to advance access to opportunity in North Carolina. An experienced classroom teacher, researcher, and program designer, Barak is a graduate of Lesley University and recipient of a Masters Degree in Education with a focus on Early Intervention and Family Support from UNC-Chapel Hill.