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Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and members of her office donated dozens of gently used children's books to the Santa Maria Public Library bookstore Friday, an initiative she said will help promote school engagement and prevent crime before it happens.

"One way to prevent crime is to lock people up so they can't get out and hurt anybody else," she explained. "Another way to prevent crime — and for me, it's the best way — is to ensure it never happens. The best way I know [to do that] is to engage [students] in school ... and get them excited about reading."

Prior to her 28-year legal career with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office, Dudley spent 12 years working with children in the classroom and outside of it. Touting experience as an instructional aide, early childhood educator and director of the county's Head Start program, Dudley stressed the importance of parental engagement to ensure children are attending and properly behaving in school.

"When a parent reads to a child, a whole bunch of wonderful things happen," she said. "They're enjoying something together — the child is pressed up against the parent ... and the parent feels like they're giving back to the child. All of that creates a parental bond and enthusiasm for the book."

As of 2016, the most recent year data is available for, the truancy rate for Santa Barbara County students hovered at 24 percent — 10-percent lower than the statewide average. Dudley credits the decline to the Community Leadership in Achieving Student Success (CLASS) truancy prevention program, a multi-agency collaborative program run out of the District Attorney's Office.

The program, she explained, aims to reduce truancy by identifying and addressing the root of the problem. Families struggling with truancy who participate in CLASS are referred to or provided additional services to improve student attendance. The goal is to ensure students and parents are held accountable under state education laws.

"We want to keep kids in school [and] make them excited about [going] to school," Dudley said, adding the program serves as a "carrot" to keep students in class. "If they can't get to school, it's because something is stopping them. Either no one can take them there; they're living at home with drug addiction or domestic violence; or they're afraid of the gang members around the schools."

Librarian Joanne Britton, who oversees adult and account services for the Santa Maria library, said Dudley and her office got in contact after learning that the bookstore would remain open. She said the donation caters to a unique demographic often overlooked by regular donors.

"This is an especially good donation because the items are very gently used and are specific to children's lit," Britton said. "We want to get books into the hands of children and teens. We definitely receive a lot of donations, but this one is great since it's geared directly toward children."

Dudley said this is her office's first donation of its kind. The books, which include some of her favorite entries in the "Curious George" series, will be sold for a suggested donation of 50 cents. 

"I think I was a 'Curious George' kind of character myself," Dudley joked.

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.