Dolly Parton
Knoxville News-Sentinel
December 14, 2002
Indian youngsters benefit from Dolly's love of books
Parton's library program going onto reservations
By Terry Morrow

PIGEON FORGE - Dolly Parton - who has added literacy advocate to her list of credits - has often wondered why she stayed in school.

She didn't enjoy it.  She's written songs about how she was taunted for being poor.  No one else in her household at the time went.  Her father couldn't read or write.

If she decided she didn't want to go, then certainly no one in her family would have tried to make her.

"I don't know why I stayed," she said Friday during an interview.

Since 1995 Parton's philanthropic work has included ways to get children to become interested in learning and staying in school.

On Friday she announced a partnership between her Dollywood Foundation and the federal government in which they'll distribute books once a month to American Indian preschoolers primarily living on reservations.

As part of the foundation's Imagination Library program, the books will be free to the families and will be delivered until children reach age 5.

American Indians have some of the lowest proficiency rates and highest dropout numbers among minorities in the United States.

The foundation began its Imagination Library in 1995 in Sevier County only.  In it, preschoolers are mailed one book a month until they begin first grade.  Parton's library program now includes 183 communities in 25 states.

With the aid of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, 92 Indian communities are being adopted and will start getting books early next year.

The idea is to stimulate children's interest in reading at an early age.  In theory, when a child begins school, they'll have a ready-made passion for learning because of early reading experiences.

The proficiency rate among American Indian students in math, English and science is well below the national average, federal officials said.  The national dropout rate for Indians in the United States is close to 18 percent.

"Many of these families on reservations come from (less) than modest economic circumstances," said Neal McCaleb, assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.  "So many of these homes on the reservations are bookless.  This now will provide the basic foundation for reading skills and instructions."

The expansion "is a big commitment on the part of the Imagination Library," he said.

The federal government will provide names and addresses for the Indian preschoolers who want to get books, McCaleb said.  The government will also pay for the books and the mailing costs.  Parton's foundation will screen and distribute the books.

Any child, regardless of economic background, can be part of the library's books program.  Costs are handled through support of community groups such as the United Way.

Parton, who said her ancestry includes Cherokee, performed benefit concerts Friday and Saturday at her Dollywood theme park to raise money for her foundation.

The foundation, aside from its Imagination Library, also provides scholarships and school materials, primarily in Sevier County.

The singing star laughs now at how her background might "ruin" her foundation's good work.

"I hated school.  I was not a good student, and I wanted to drop out," she said.

She says she often thinks of why she stayed with school.

"First of all, I knew I couldn't leave home until I was 18," she said.  "There were so many kids at home I knew I'd have to work my (behind) off if I stayed there.  So I (thought I should) just as soon be in school, and maybe I could learn something."

She says she wasn't a stellar student.  She was held back in the third grade, but she enjoyed the interaction with other kids her age.

Parton said staying in school helped motivate her to read, too.  Now, at 57, she's a voracious reader.