Guest column: Early literacy promotes lifelong success

Published 8:40 pm Friday, July 29, 2022

Guest column by Tim Penny

As summer days turn into evening, many parents pull out a book or two to read to their kids at bedtime. This is important because studies consistently show that reading at a young age drastically improves a child’s educational trajectory. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation we know it is important to invest in early literacy efforts as a long-term strategy to support lifelong success.

Tim Penny

According to Minnesota Compass, the ability to read by the end of third grade often predicts future academic and life success. Sadly, only 48% of third graders in Minnesota are proficient in reading, and our 20-county region is just a fraction above the statewide average.

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One way SMIF supports these literacy efforts is through our Early Literacy Grant program. We recently distributed more than 21,000 books — English, Spanish and bilingual — to 46 organizations in our region through this grant. These organizations — libraries, schools, public health organizations, reading centers and more — work with children birth to age eight. The beauty of this program is that these organizations will distribute the books to children who will be able to take them home, hopefully encouraging a lifelong love of reading.

Minnesota-based publishing companies, ABDO and Capstone, generously donate the majority of the books for this program. Over the years of partnering with these companies, we have been able to distribute more than one hundred thousand books throughout the region.

Our AmeriCorps LEAP Initiative program is another way we facilitate early literacy. LEAP stands for Learning Early Achieves Potential, which is the mantra that guides this program.

Each year, AmeriCorps members are placed throughout the region at preschools and nonprofit organizations. Our members work on social and emotional development with children who are at risk of falling behind. Reading exercises are a major part of the program.

As we continue to invest in early literacy efforts, we hope to see reading proficiencies rise in our region. Our partner organizations and grant recipients are doing wonderful work ensuring that our future adults will be prepared for success in life. We are proud to be a partner in these efforts.

We are currently seeking AmeriCorps members for our 2022 – 2023 term. Contact Barbara Gunderson at 507-456-0353 or to learn more. 

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Penny represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.