Earlier this month, hundreds of Bonneville County parents received a newsletter and a picture book. Both were part of a new initiative by Bonneville Joint School District 93 to improve the literacy of preschoolers before they begin kindergarten at its schools.

The initiative is lead by district data analyst Jodi Barnes and technology specialist and former teacher Julie Briggs. Briggs said the idea for the program was first pitched to her by Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme in the spring. He had seen declining preparedness among the students coming into kindergarten, which he partially blamed on bad screen habits.

“I think that my youngest children spent a lot more time watching TV or on tablets, and we probably interacted with them less. That’s probably not too different from most families,” Woolstenhulme said.

Idaho is currently one of four states that do not provide funding for public preschools. New data from the Idaho Reading Indicator show that the number of kindergartners who start school reading at grade level dropped from 44.9 percent to 42.3 percent over the last year.

In District 93, 40.7 percent of kindergarteners were reading at grade level when this year started while 24.7 percent were below grade level. The district offers a limited number of preschool classes at Falls Valley Elementary School for students who qualify for special services to treat physical, mental and speech disabilities.

Briggs and Barnes spent the next several months deciding how best to reach out to parents and what the district could provide. They sent the first notice about the program out with a districtwide newsletter to make sure that it reached parents of current students who also have preschool-age students.

The format of the newsletter is based on the Bookworm program run by the Idaho Commission of Libraries and includes many of the same online resources. Families who sign up for the district’s initiative will receive a new book every month along with recommendations for online programs that can supplement the lessons. The first month’s book is “Pete at the Beach,” part of a series of children’s books by Eric Litwin.

“Parents are a child’s first teacher, so we need them to facilitate some of these interactions and lessons to get them started for school,” Briggs said.

The program is largely paid for using the nearly $1.1 million in childhood literacy funds provided to the district by the state this year. Statewide literacy funding was doubled this year, from $13 million to $26 million, at Gov. Brad Little’s request. District 93 also used those funds to hire additional staff at its elementary schools and pay for a literacy intervention program for current students called Lexia.

Increased local funding is one of several efforts focused on improving childhood literacy across Idaho. Last year, a partnership between the Idaho State Department of Education and Achieve3000 began offering parents of 4- and 5-year-olds free enrollment in an online reading app called Smarty Ants.

An early adopter of the Smarty Ants program was Briggs’ 4-year-old daughter Jolene. She uses her mother’s tablet to “do her homework” several times a week by reading along with a book or watching free educational videos through Khan Academy Kids.

The Smarty Ants program reads a picture book aloud to Jolene, with each word jumping on screen as it is read and cartoon characters chiming in to help keep her attention. At the end of the book, she taps the screen to answer questions about what happened in the story and how the characters felt during the story. Jolene got a perfect score in her responses Monday afternoon.

Briggs believed that both physical books and computer games such as Smarty Ants had a role in preparing kids to start school.

“They need to know how to hold a book and read on their own. But Smarty Ants is actively checking comprehension, and it offers feedback to them,” Briggs said.

Over the course of its first year, a report from Achieve3000 found that 865 preschool students had enrolled in the program. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, there were 116,000 children under the age of 5 in Idaho last year.

This year has seen a total of 231 students participating in Smarty Ants between Aug. 1. and Nov. 14, according to an updated report given to the State Department of Education earlier this month. Bonneville County has the second-highest participation in the state at 31 students, behind Ada County with 48.

Early indicators show that the District 93 program could be a huge boost to the statewide usage of Smarty Ants and other literacy programs. More than 150 parents had signed up to receive the newsletter within the first day it was available and the first book was distributed to 258 families this month.

“Word of mouth is going to be a big factor in reaching parents who aren’t already in the district. This has been a great start,” Barnes said.

Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.