More than 7,000 children in Pueblo County earned $100 each for reading this summer. They were in a program called Reading Pays and it was the first to use the Pueblo city and county cuts of American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA funding. There was a rocky start for some kids, but a stellar finish for many of them.
Children from neighborhoods around the county participated in Reading Pays. They picked ten books from their local libraries, and then wrote, drew, or made videos about at least one.
Nine-year-old Olivia Gonzales made a video where she said she liked a book called "The Pride," which tells about the story of Harvey Milk and the rainbow pride flag. She also read another book called "Splat the Cat: First Day of School."
“I like it because he makes a lot of good friends and making friends is really fun,” Gonzales said.
Antonio Mondragon produced a video too.
"Today we are going to make sugar cookies from this baking book from the library because … part of that reading thing," he said in it, the oven beeping in the background.
Pueblo School District 60 literacy coach Abbie Spillman said she’s happy that the monetary incentive got the kids reading more. “If that's what it takes to start with," she said, "and then they mature into realizing, hey, reading is just something that I need to be successful.”
The program was open to any Pueblo County resident under 18. Nick Potter of the Pueblo City-County Library District managed it. He said the highest participation was among 8- to 10-year-olds.
“That's an age where kids are excited about reading and reading is fun,” he said. “It's this whole new thing that you just learned how to do.”
But over the course of the summer, organizers noticed a high rate of completion for children from more affluent neighborhoods, while youth from other areas often weren’t completing the work. It was something Potter said they wanted to address.
“When school was coming back in session, that was really a perfect time for us to get them back into an environment where they had a lot of stability and they had an adult there that was able to help them to complete the program,” he said.
By working with school staff like Spillman, they helped the kids pick books, read and report on them in class. Potter said by doing so, they were able to radically boost the completion rate for children in some of the schools.
For example, Columbian Elementary School in south Pueblo raised the number of students finishing the Reading Pays program from 15 percent up to 95 percent by the time it ended.
“It is very significant, not just for our school, but for our town and for Pueblo,” said Columbian principal Jimmie Pool, “just that excitement and to get them thinking about things and experiences that they can do.”
The kids told him what they wanted to do with their $100. Maybe get a dog. Or go to the pumpkin patch or spend it on a boat and a hula hoop.
Pool and Spillman said at first a lot of the children and their parents thought the whole program sounded too good to be true.
“So many times kids are promised so many things and it doesn't happen for them for whatever reason,” she said. “When they got it, oh my gosh, you want to talk about excitement there it was.”
The kids talked about practical items they needed too, like school supplies. Potter said this level of reward is unusual for summer reading programs, which typically give away small items and coupons.
The program also had an incentive for the kids to save their earnings. If the participants opened a savings account and kept $50 in it for a certain time frame, they would earn an additional $10.
Pueblo mayor Nick Gradisar came up with the idea of paying kids $100 for reading, because he said reading is an essential life skill, and he said that money would likely stay in the community. The more than $700,000 cost of the program is split evenly between the city and the county. Gradisar said if ARPA funds come in as expected next year he’d like to see it happen again.
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