"Sesame Street" opted to celebrate its 50th birthday in downtown Dalton Saturday, a festival complete with cake and cupcakes, a "Happy Birthday" group singalong, and an appearance from Count von Count.

"We're one of only three places in the country getting this birthday party today," said Michelle Caldwell, elementary curriculum director for Whitfield County Schools. "You always wonder how many kids are going to come, but this is so great."

In 2015, more than 25 local community entities, including Whitfield County Schools (WCS) and Dalton Public Schools (DPS), joined forced to address childhood literacy, because "we knew we had potential for growth," said the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia's Suzanne Harbin, who oversees the community initiative on improving language and literacy development in children from birth to age 8. Since that time, third-grade reading proficiency has jumped 8% in DPS and 12% in WCS.

On this spring's Georgia Milestones Assessment System, 78% of WCS third-graders read at or above grade level, according to Judy Gilreath, superintendent. That's higher than the Georgia state average on those exams of 73%.

Literacy jumps for local students have been caused in part by the plethora of community entities emphasizing the importance of early reading, Caldwell said. "We're finding ways to get access to families," including opening school libraries during summer.

The after-school program with WCS families, a partnership with Dalton State College, has also been "tremendous," because it allows educators to share with parents the reading strategies students are learning in school, she said. "There's no disconnect between home and school."

WCS has been assisted in its efforts to boost childhood literacy by a Growing Readers Program grant from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, and Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) did a story on the district's literacy strategies, Caldwell said. That connection with GPB eventually helped lead to "Sesame Street" celebrating its birthday in Whitfield County Saturday.

"It's very affirming to be recognized for our community literacy work, and I'm excited for our families," she said. "We still have work to do, but we're in a great spot."

Saturday's event at the Burr Performing Arts Park featured inflatables, face painting, games, activities, story time, desserts and photo opportunities with Count von Count, all free for families.

Every child in attendance Saturday left with a free book, too, as "one of our goals is to increase access" to reading materials for students outside of school, Caldwell said. Students "have access to books at school, but not always at home."

"This community is unique, because everyone is pushing the same message," Caldwell added. "We're all moving in the same direction."

Megan Brown, who brought her son, Kasen Brown, 3, to the party was aware of the event due to her role as a teacher at Antioch Elementary, and "we came to join in on the fun," she said. "'Sesame Street' is great," and while Kasen isn't yet a viewer, "he will be."

Sarah Reed's son, Coy Reed, who will turn 4 at the end of this month, is already a fan of "Sesame Street," which pleases his mother, she said. The show "has a lot to do with friendships and how being different is OK, which is something we try to teach Coy."

The long-running series offers "simple life lessons kids can understand, and I never have to worry about bad language or any of that," she added. "That's big for us."

Brown appreciated how virtually every part of Saturday's party reinforced the importance of literacy, she said. "It all promotes reading."

Reed echoed those sentiments and added that Saturday's numerous volunteers helped make the party a success.

"We got here early, and the kids over by the bounce house made it fun and interactive," Reed said. "Anything we can do in our community to let kids have fun," such as Saturday's birthday party, "we're all about that."

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