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Star City Reads Program Drives Roanoke’s All-America Award

Roanoke Libraries Director Sheila Umberger is excited about Star City Reads.

  Roanoke was recently named as an All-America City for the sixth time by the National Civic League. Mayor David Bowers and City Manager Chris Morrill flew to Denver to accept the award. Sheila Umberger, Director of Libraries for the city, accompanied them.  Roanoke’s library system – and specifically its Star City Reads program – is why the National Civic League awarded its All-America City honor.

 Star City Reads, a program that is just now getting off the ground, is designed to help ensure that city school children are reading at grade level by the end of the third grade. “Roanoke will focus on children’s needs as they relate to school readiness, attendance and summer learning,” is  the declaration on a flyer for the program.  “We’re actually in the process of implementing our plan,” said Umberger of what is known as the Community Solutions Action Plan.

 Umberger is looking for individuals, businesses and organizations that might be interested in helping with the Star City Reads campaign.  A number of partners are already on board, including TAP, Blue Ridge Literacy, United Way of Roanoke Valley, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Smart Beginnings (a program aimed at kindergartners) and Roanoke City Public Schools. “The school system was involved with us from the first day,” said Umberger.

 Having Roanoke City schoolchildren read at the third grade level by the time they are in the third grade “is a very pivotal moment,” according to Umberger, who has also been busy overseeing renovations at many of the city’s public libraries. Studies show that 80% of children who fail their third grade reading test wind up on welfare, according to Umberger, who adds that future planning for prisons is made in part by how many children fail that test. “It’s a benchmark,” said Umberger.

 Roanoke is the only community in the country to win the All-America City designation six times. The Star City Reads program, which helped clinch this latest award, includes a number of ideas. Having students ready to go to kindergarten, reducing absenteeism and taking advantage of summer learning programs are points in the program.

 Then there is the October 16 visit by Mallory Lewis and Lamb Chop – Mallory’s mother Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop the puppet were staples on television decades ago. Lewis will be here in October with a “Sesame Street quality,” program said Umberger. Mallory Lewis will take part in a preschool program at the library before heading to Lincoln Terrace Elementary School. A family program that night will include a petting zoo – featuring lambs, of course.

 A portion of the main library branch downtown may soon be dedicated to preschool children and their parents and perhaps a reading corner. The Star City Reads program will fit nicely as Roanoke rolls out a library master plan over the next few years, according to Umberger. “It’s important to create the space where parents [and] children want to come to a program.”

 Children who don’t read or polish their learning skills over the long summer often come back to school three months behind, according to Umberger. As for all of the players involved in the Star City Reads program, its important she adds that “we need to work together.” In fact the National Civic League recognized that cooperation between agencies as one reason for awarding its designation.

 “The problem is a community problem, and we’re all coming at it from different directions,” said Umberger, who is working on a plan so that the different players can share data and ideas on what’s working as far as best practices.

 In three years the city can apply for an implementation award from the National Civic League – after proving that the Star City Reads program has been effective. Grant money could be available down the road once the program is fully in place.

 Programs to support the plan will be held at Roanoke City Library locations and other venues. Information will be available on the city’s website and a Facebook page. Children who are exposed to the right type of learning environment are testing “much higher,” when they go to kindergarten, making things easier down the road. “I see a strong strategic tie to this All-America City Award,” said Umberger.

 (See more about Star City Reads at /

 by Gene Marrano

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