TAMPA — The latest reading project in Hillsborough County goes beyond handing a kid a book. In its launch Saturday, at Sulphur Springs’ Springhill Community Center, a psychedelically colored, air-conditioned school bus will bring free children’s books along with characters from a favorite PBS show like Curious George and, most importantly, volunteers dedicated to reading and spending time with children.
The bus-turned-mobile library, named the Mobile Interactive Literacy Opportunity or MILO, will travel the county on the first Saturday of every month, stopping at Children’s Board Family Resource centers and public libraries to bring free books and volunteer readers to children ages 3 to 8 in underserved and rural urban neighborhoods.
“This will reinforce to the students that reading isn’t just something that happens in school, it’s a lifetime experience and the summer is as good a time as any to get into reading,” said school board member Doretha Edgecomb, who unveiled the bus Monday morning along with the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County with the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library, the Junior League of Tampa and WEDU PBS. “I want kids to really enjoy reading and not get hung up on the skills involved, but really just enjoy finding a book you want to read over and over.”
MILO will still teach those skills, through art activities and character-led reading circles designed to get parents involved with their children. Kids will pick a book they want to bring home and will be encouraged to sign up for a free library card and explore myON, a free online library program with more than 6,000 free children’s e-books.
The myON program recommends titles based on reader’s preferences and allows teachers to track how much time their students spend reading. Since the program launched in 2012, students in Hillsborough County have read more than 7 million books through the program.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman dreamt up MILO in January over coffee with representatives from the Junior League of Tampa, which has donated books to area children since 1996. The Children’s Board donated about $15,000 to the project, but most of the resources needed to make it run are in-kind donations like collected books and the unused bus.
The bus will travel to urban areas as well as rural and suburban areas like Seffner, Ruskin and Plant City, founders said.
“I’m from a rural area and its particularly heartwarming to me to know that these kids will have the exposure and access to books that the kids in more urban areas have,” said Kelley Parris, executive director of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County from Gallion, Alabama.
About 25 percent of Hillsborough County children live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and school district performance on standardized tests show that about 40 percent of third-grade students read below grade level.
MILO is just the latest in a string of programs aimed at improving literacy among Hillsborough County’s youngest students, and the stakes are high. In Florida, third grade students who don’t pass reading benchmarks on the state’s standardized tests aren’t promoted to fourth grade. Last year, about 20 percent of Hillsborough County third-graders were at risk of being held back, according to the Florida Department of Education.
“Those reading below a third grade reading level are rarely able to close the achievement gap and often fall through the cracks of society,” said Director of the Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library Andrew Breidenbaugh. “This doesn’t just have personal consequences, this has real costs to our community in the form of lost wages, public assistance and incarceration,”