ONTARIO – Next Tuesday, an assemblage of school buses will pull up at the Four Rivers Cultural Center to unleash a throng of kindergarteners.
The youngsters will be there for the fourth annual stORytime, an early literacy campaign focused on making sure kids become proficient readers.
StORytime began in 2015 as part of the now-defunct Oregon Education Investment Board’s educational reforms.
“They picked the five most impoverished parts of the state for a pilot program,” said Sherri Hironaka, a retired administrator for the Ontario School District who has volunteered to coordinate the event since it started. “The program was meant to encourage parents to help their kids get a good start at school.”
Hironaka said she and Kelly Poe of the Malheur Educational Service District helped start the program in 2015. That year, roughly 500 students from across Malheur County attended.
“The local schools really liked it,” said Hironaka. “We had people asking us if we could get it to work the next year, and the next.”
Each year, local readers come in to volunteer for the event. Volunteers typically read five stories to each class, and some books are bilingual.
Law enforcement officers from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office and the Ontario and Nyssa city departments are among the readers.
“We also have retired people, business people come in and read,” Hironaka said.
State funding lasted only one year but the first event was so popular that the community kept the event going with the help of local businesses and organizations.
For example, the Four Rivers Cultural Center doesn’t charge for the event, said Hironaka. Umpqua Bank and Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in the past have helped as well.
Eastern Oregon Community Services obtained sponsorships to cover this year’s costs, said Theresa Martinez, early childhood coordinator at the Malheur ESD.
Since 2015, stORytime has morphed from a literacy campaign to pushing kids to go to college.
“Our big takeaways are three things: that you need to go to school, you learn to read and that you need to graduate high school,” said Martinez.
Last year, stORytime invited mascots from local high schools and colleges as part of a presentation to rally kids to be excited for more school.
“The ESD superintendent gets up and talks to kids about transition, then all the high school mascots come up to the audience,” said Martinez. “After we do high school, we move on to college mascots.”
Parents are also welcome and can get tips on ways to incorporate reading and learning words into everyday interactions with their kids.
“It encourages parents to teach early literacy skills to their children,” said Martinez.
Every child will get to choose and take home a book at stORytime.
Their parents will receive a bag filled with activity ideas to help foster reading and learning in their kids.
Last year, about 400 kids from Malheur County attended stORytime.
Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377