Point of View

Finding hope for struggling students in a bonanza of NC book-giving

March 22, 2014 

Students at Glenn Elementary School in Durham receive books to take home for the summer.

PICASA — Courtesy of Ginger Young

A young friend told me everyone at her school is stressed.

No wonder North Carolina teachers are stressed: Their pay is 46th in the nation, their teacher tenure has been repealed, their class sizes are ballooning and they have to adapt to a new Common Core curriculum.

No wonder students are stressed: They are subjected to a barrage of tests, and the results are not always encouraging. Third-graders in particular are performing under a specter of fear, in the knowledge that if they don’t demonstrate reading proficiency by the end of the year, they will be sentenced to summer camp mandated by the new Read to Achieve legislation. If camp fails to bring them up to speed, they’ll be back in third grade in the fall.

But wait! Some great news lurks amid all this demoralizing chaos. Something joyful is afoot and is going viral – something that will not only bring solace and smiles to our anxious kids but also help them get on track academically: There is a bonanza of book-giving erupting all around us.

In Wake County, a giant rooster mascot is encouraging students to donate their extra books to WAKE Up and Read, with the goal of collecting 40,000 books in March. These books will be given to low-income students, with a special focus on sending kids home with books for summer reading.

In Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, the nonprofit organization Book Harvest will again work with the school systems to send 10 books home with each of more than 2,000 low-income children at the start of summer. This will be Book Harvest’s fourth year running its massive giveaway, which has reached more than 5,000 students with a home library of summer reading.

And this phenomenon reaches far beyond the Triangle. State Superintendent June Atkinson has just kicked off the second year of the statewide “Give Five – Read Five” campaign. Noting that “children who do not read over the summer fall 2½ to 3 months behind their peers in literacy skills,” Atkinson is rallying business leaders, communities and schools to run book drives, enabling students in need to take five books home. This campaign brought in a stunning 123,000 books in its first year, reaching students at 74 elementary schools from every corner of North Carolina.

Why is this groundswell of book-giving such a cause for hope? It is one of those rare times when research and practice are aligned. We have long known that books in the home are the single biggest predictor of academic success, that summer learning loss is a major contributor to the achievement gap disproportionately affecting our low-income children and that we can push back against summer learning loss simply by providing kids with books.

If we were to base our actions on research findings, we would literally flood our under-resourced kids with books every summer of their school careers. Finally, this is what appears to be happening – and just in time to help stem the tide of low morale, high anxiety and discouraging scores.

I have had the privilege of serving as a personal shopper to dozens of students as they selected their Books on Break in the last week of the school year. The pride at having 10 books to take home and keep for their very own, the thrill of discovering a super-cool book about sharks or extreme weather, the feeling of victory at scoring that prized Wimpy Kid novel are all moments I was euphoric to witness. Kids not only need to read; they want to read.

We are already realizing results. Here is what one teacher wrote this fall: “I don’t love spending hours assessing kids on their reading rather than getting on with the real deal, but I DO love when kids who got 10 books of their very own to read over the summer come back in the fall and read at the same level as they did when they left. That is priceless!”

If we want our kids to succeed in school, it is essential that they read over the summer. To be able to read over the summer, they have to have books. But for many of our children, books are out of reach.

Programs such as WAKE Up and Read, Books on Break and Give Five – Read Five demonstrate how easy it is to provide books to the kids who most stand to benefit from them.

Ginger Young is the founder and executive director of Book Harvest, a nonprofit organization based in Durham.

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