The school day had not yet started, but Maggie Gann perused an assortment of books on a table in the Dublin Elementary School cafeteria. The kindergartner grabbed Big Red Barn.
She took a seat nearby and listened as her father, Kevin Gann, read the book, a tranquil tale about a day in the life of a barnyard by Margaret Wise Brown. The Darlington residents then discussed the book and worked on a craft project.
It was the 5-year-old's first time attending Read With Me, a before-school program for all grades where pupils can spend time with books and family. But it continued a tradition for the Ganns.
"This is so much fun!" Maggie said. "My brother and sister did it, and now I'm doing it."
Maggie was among more than 25 children who came with parents or grandparents one morning last week for the program, which is held for a half-hour every other Thursday.
A new book is designated for each grade level at every session. Children and their parents read the book during the session and then take it home to keep. A child who attends every session would have 15 new books at the end of the school year.
The chance for children to do some extra reading is an important part of the program, but it's not the only one, said county reading specialist Bonnie String, who oversees the program.
"We liked the program because it involved parents in the activity," she said. "The kids who attend love to read already."
String wanted to schedule the program at a time when working parents would have the chance to attend. Some parents are so enthusiastic about the program that they say they rearrange their schedules to take part.
Kevin Gann said his flexible work schedule enables him to participate.
"This reading program is great one-on-one time with Maggie," he said. "My wife did this before me, and now I'm committed to being here. We read to Maggie at home every night, and this activity is one more thing we can do to read with her."
Jennifer Donovan of Darlington attended a session and liked it so much that the Johns Hopkins nurse tries to configure her work schedule around the program. Donovan has attended all the sessions with her 7-year-old son Jacob since the program began about three years ago.
"It provides us with ways to read the book and do activities to make reading fun," she said. "And the books correspond with his reading level and that helps me when I go out and buy him books."
Before starting the program, String needed funding and approached the PTA, which agreed to provide up to 30 books per session.
String scans book lists for classics for 99 cents or less. Some of the titles recently distributed include Corduroy (for first-graders), Wemberly Worried (second), Horrible Harry (third) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (fourth and fifth).
Pupils also receive information sheets that include reading strategies. After discussion, the children work on a craft project. In some cases, parents get ideas they can do with their children at home.
Candy Rickard of Darlington attends with her daughter, Christina, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, and her son, Cole, a 5-year-old kindergartener. She's discovered several ways to spruce up reading time.
"When we learn new things I try them at home," Rickard said. "Like we might change our voices or use rhyme when we say certain words."
Janine Stager of Darlington attends the sessions with her daughter, Taylor, 9, and her son, Toby, 4. She's hoping the sessions will change her feelings about reading.
"Taylor is a people-person, and she reads a lot at home," Stager said. "I hate reading. So when we come here she reads to me."
And Taylor said she enjoys the opportunity to read to someone else.
"I want my mom to like reading," Taylor said. "I'm going to try to come up with ideas like having her read books that are favorite movies and stuff like that. But I hope this helps her like reading too."
For Annie Zizle, a 5-year-old kindergartener, the best part is that her grandmother attends with her.
"I love the time I get with her outside of the house without any other kids around," said Marge Daugherty, Annie's grandmother from Joppa. "I plan on coming as often as I can. They should offer the program to more schools in the county."