Garner Cleveland Record

Group collecting 40,000 books for low-income Wake County children

Dancing principals, a rooster named “Ruben,” and Dr. Seuss might not seem to have much in common.

But all three elements are coming together in March during WAKE Up and Read’s month-long campaign to collect 40,000 new or gently used books for children up to age 12. The books will be donated to low-income Wake County children in the hopes of encouraging them to read and to narrow an achievement gap that’s putting many students at a disadvantage.

“The books that are collected will make a big difference,” said Carolyn Merrifield of WAKE Up And Read, a group that promotes childhood literacy in Wake County. “A lot of kids don’t have books to read at home.”

The drive kicks off Sunday, March 2, the birthday of Dr. Seuss, at 12 p.m at the Barnes & Noble Booksellers at Brier Creek Commons in Raleigh. Firefighters and principals will read “Green Eggs and Ham” and other Dr. Seuss stories as Ruben, a life-size rooster mascot, greets families bringing in donated books.

Near the end of the drive on March 27, the principals of Conn and Powell elementary schools will hold a dance off at 7 p.m. at Ligon Middle School in Raleigh with the audience encouraged to bring books.

Amid all the fun, school and community leaders say the statistics reveal the strong need to encourage literacy at a young age.

School administrators shared with board members last month how gaps in reading knowledge are apparent in kindergarten.

When kindergarten students start in Wake, they’re assessed on whether they know 19 print concepts, such as what’s a capital letter, a lower-case letter, a period and a quotation mark. Most white and Asian students knew the majority of the 19 concepts, but less than half the black and Hispanic children did.

Administrators said the gaps are “stubborn,” carrying over into the later grades.

School board members said the data shows the value of expanding literacy efforts in pre-kindergarten and K-12, but especially through the early elementary school grades.

“Why are we still arguing the need to have pre-K?” school board vice chairman Tom Benton said in an interview. “We should be offering it to all children.”

State legislators have also made early childhood literacy a focus with the Read To Achieve program that says children should be reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Some education leaders object to the law’s focus on standardized testing.

School readiness is one of the main pillars of WAKE Up and Read, which was formed in 2012 by the school system in partnership with several community groups.

“The school system needs to reach out to the community,” said school board chairwoman Christine Kushner. “We can’t work in isolation on this.”

Merrifield said they’ll give some of the books to childcare centers to be distributed to parents of children who haven’t entered kindergarten yet. She said they want the parents to have the books at home so they can get into the habit of reading to their children daily.

But the book drive will also help with another pillar of WAKE Up and Read – reducing summer reading loss. Studies have shown that low-income students fall behind academically over the summer compared to more affluent classmates who are reading during the break.

Merrifield said they’ve identified several high-poverty elementary schools where they hope to give each child 10 books so they’ll have a summer reading library.

The drive got off to an unofficial start at the school board’s Feb. 18 meeting when school leaders brought in books. Kushner, whose youngest child is now in high school, donated her childrens’ picture books.

“Reading to my children is one of my fondest memories,” Kushner said.