At Ball State’s Research Design Studio (RDS), an underlying philosophy is that “great research starts with a great idea.” That approach is evident when considering the RDS collaboration with the Hancock County Community Foundation (HCCF) and its community’s generous $2.4 million investment to improve kindergarten readiness across the county.

At the core of the HCCF’s effort is Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation Imagination Library, a nationwide program started in 1995 that provides books to children from birth to five years of age. Ultimately, the goal is to afford them a firm foundation before reaching kindergarten.

The HCCF, in partnership with the Hancock County Public Library, started the effort five years ago in 2016 by providing access to the program to newborn county children and their families.  The incremental enrollment model, an option allowing a community to grow the number of enrollees by adding a new age group of eligibility each year, together with a careful development plan to grow at least a $2 million endowment, has ensured that the Hancock County program will be sustainable.

Now that the first co-hort of children in the program will be entering kindergarten in the fall, HCCF President/CEO Mary Gibble is optimistic that the provision of quality literacy materials to the home of Hancock County families  has “moved the needle” and is elated that Ball State’s RDS has designed and will implement the research component.

“From the time we initialized the effort to provide this program to our community, we knew having a strong, professional evaluation of its effectiveness was critical once our first enrollees started to move into kindergarten,” Gibble said. “We explored many avenues and couldn’t be happier that Ball State has agreed to help us.”

According to Jerrell Cassady, Professor of Psychology—Educational Psychology, and Co-Director of the Research Design Studio, the community partnership with HCCF fits well with the RDS focus and will produce one of the most significant studies of early childhood literacy program efficacy to date.

“While RDS supports partners in developing, implementing, and documenting research strategies that can be useful in any discipline, our expertise is predominantly in educational and psychological domains, so this community partnership with the Hancock County Community Foundation is particularly exciting for us,” Cassady said. “And with about 2,700 students in the program, it appears this will be a very significant study of the Imagination Library in particular and early childhood literacy in general.”

HCCF’s road to the Imagination Library

According to Gibble, educational attainment within Hancock County has always been a top priority for the HCCF, which had known about a gap in kindergarten readiness for some time.

“Studies had shown us that, on average,  40 percent of Hancock County children entering kindergarten were testing below or well below national literacy readiness standards,” Gibble said. “We wanted to expand our education efforts to children before they enrolled in kindergarten and, more importantly, what we might be able to do to make a positive enduring difference in educational attainment.”

For several years, Gibble and the HCCF had been aware of the Imagination Library. Once the program had grown and matured into a national scope from its humble beginnings in 1995, the group became more interested.

“We had heard very good feedback from other parts of the country on the Imagination Library program, and in 2014, we launched a formal fundraising campaign that has resulted in a $2.4 million endowment to cover the costs of  providing the program,” Gibble said. “It’s a big undertaking but with big potential benefits.  Our community has been incredibly generous.”

While raising the money to support the program, the HCCF took the lead role in recruiting enrollment partners and volunteers such as the four county school systems, libraries, and local hospitals that provided Imagination Library information and enrollment forms to new parents.  The Hancock County Public Library verifies eligibility based on age and location, enters enrollment information in the Dollywood Foundation system, tracks address changes, and reports enrollment statistics on a monthly basis.  “We couldn’t execute the program without this important partnership”, says Gibble.

Cassady said the HCCF and the partners it recruited were able to reach a participation rate of about 80 percent: “That’s simply an amazing level of enrollment for a community-wide early childhood intervention.

“To get that level of participation takes a coordinated, well-designed effort and committed volunteers, and all who had a part in it are to be congratulated,” he continued.

What Gibble and the HCCF did not know in 2016 was that Imagination Library would play a critical role in educational attainment during a worldwide pandemic. Every book has been delivered to the mailboxes of Hancock County family homes during the pandemic, and these high-quality, age-appropriate books became the most accessible educational material for Hancock County children under the age of five.

“How and if the pandemic impacts the results of the study remain to be seen, but we know we have a partner in Ball State that will cover all the angles,” Gibble said. “To have this kind of resource in our own back yard is so exciting to us, and we are so grateful for this partnership.”

Serving our neighbors and communities near and far

Among Ball State’s guiding principles is this: “We are about more than educating students. We are about serving our neighbors and communities, near and far.”

As it relates to the community partnership with the HCCF, those words have once again been translated into action.

“While this project has the potential to be very significant and bring attention to the capabilities of the RDS, it’s also a part of our ‘service model.’ That is, we are doing this work without drawing upon the resources of the schools or the Hancock County Community Foundation that are rightly focused on supporting student learning,” Cassady said. “It’s a part of our mission — it provides an outstanding experience for our students, both undergrad and grad, who will help work on it. Most of all, it provides what we believe will be outstanding and useful data to benefit our neighbors in Hancock County.”

In terms of timelines, the initial planning work with HCCF and the four school districts has been ongoing for the past several months, but Cassady expects the first round of findings examining impact on Kindergarten readiness will be completed by the summer of 2022.

Cassady and the RDS, along with the HCCF leadership, are finalizing details with the four school corporations in the county and the Dollywood Foundation that will enable a comprehensive analysis of the educational impacts of participating in the Imagination Library for  children in the county. The effort will launch in the fall of 2021 when the first co-hort of enrolled children start kindergarten.

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