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Free books block summer slide in low-income students

Susan Notes:

For years, Stephen Krashen has provided research showing that kids who read become better readers. I "proved" this myself early in my teaching career. People from the NY State Education Department actually came to my remedial reading classroom for urban/minority 7th & 8th graders to see what I was using to produce the improved standardized test scores I was getting. I'll never forget when the person in charge of reading said, "We'd like to see what program you use."

I grabbed a copy of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends and said, "The kids like this a lot."

She couldn't get out of that room fast enough. . . but not before I grabbed a copy of Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, saying "Seven kids are reading this" and six are reading The Outsiders."

In those good old days when educators were allowed to take charge, my principal and I figured out a system wherein every month every kid 'earned' a coupon good for a free paperbook at the local bookstore. Yes, the kids went to the store and chose their own books. And when I saw a book I thought they'd like, I'd take a handful of tickets and go get multiple copies. No complicated paperwork: As the holder of the coupons, I was mistress of the books.

That kind of student and teacher freedom of choice is almost unimaginable these days. What I like about the program Allington describes below is that the books were selected from lists the students provided.

When I won a Scholastic contest good for 100 free books, the company sent me a list of "programs" I could choose from. "No," I said. "My third graders and I are going to choose from the catalogue--one book at a time." My students, segregated as the 18 worst readers in our school's third grade, just about wore out that catalogue examining titles, arguing over which to order. Each child was given three picks: two for himself and one for the classroom library. I chose the rest. Those kids labeled "rotten readers" (Dick Allington's very accurate term) worried over/argued over their picks for more than a week. And their choices were stellar.

It's definitely good news that some people want to give kids books over the summer. Let's hope they let kids and teachers choose those books. And may their numbers increase.

Question: Have you ever heard of Bill Gates or Eli Broad giving books to kids for summer reading? Have you ever heard of Arne Duncan supporting a Kids Race for Books of Their Own?

My favorite charity is a program here in Vermont that gives books to kids who attend a summer camp for the children of incarcerated parents. In Vermont, there are over 2000 children with one or both parents in prison. A 2001 Senate report shows that 70% of the children of current prisoners will themselves someday be incarcerated. So church groups have joined together to operate Camp Agape, to break the cycle of "generational incarceration." Camp Agape offers a free, week-long camp experience to children aged 7-11 who have a parent who is incarcerated. It is jointly sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, the Troy Conference of the United Methodist Church and The Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ. Although I am not religious, when I heard that one goal of Camp Agape personnel is to put a free book in each child's gift backpack (which also includes a fishing pole), I got involved. This is my third year of gathering donations of wonderful new books. The people at Camp Agape send home extra books for the sibilings who don't meet age requirements for the camp itself--so books for all ages are welcome.

To change the world we need to improve the lives of children. A nice, new book is one place to start. This is my version of lighting a candle.

By Greg Toppo

Can a $50 stack of paperback books do as much for a child's academic fortunes as a $3,000 stint in summer school?

An experimental program in seven states may help answer that question this summer as districts from Nevada to South Carolina give thousands of low-income students an armful of free books.

Research has shown that simply giving children books may be as effective as summer school ΓΆ€” and a lot cheaper. The big question is whether the effect can be replicated on a larger scale and help reduce the USA's nagging achievement gap between low-income and middle-class students.

Getting kids to read in summer

Schools have always tried to get students to read over the summer. For middle-class students, that's not as big a deal with their access to books at home, public libraries and neighborhood bookstores, says Richard Allington, a longtime reading researcher at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have shown that low-income students simply have less access to print. In some cases, even walking to the local public library may be too dangerous.

"A lot of parents say, 'When we're gone, you can't go to the library.' It's not an option," says Rebecca Constantino, a researcher and instructor at the University of California-Irvine.

The result: a well-documented "summer slide" in academics that, by sixth grade, accounts for as much as 80% of the achievement gap, Allington and other researchers say. Researchers note that low-income students lose about three months of ground each summer to middle-class peers.

"You do that across nine or 10 summers, and the next thing you know, you've got almost three years' reading growth lost," Allington says.

For a study to be published later this year in Reading Psychology, Allington and colleagues selected students in 17 high-poverty elementary schools in Florida and, for three consecutive years, gave each child 12 books, from a list the students provided, on the last day of school.

In all, 852 students received books each year, paid for mostly by federal Title I money. Three years later, researchers found that those students who received books had "significantly higher" reading scores, experienced less of a summer slide and read more on their own each summer than the 478 who didn't get books.

Simple cause-and-effect

Constantino, who in 1999 founded Access Books, a group that has given away more than 1 million books, says the cause-and-effect is simple: "When kids own books, they get this sense, 'I'm a reader,' " she says. "It's very powerful when you go to a kid's home and ask him, 'Where is your library?' "

The program, piloted last year in Richmond County, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., expands to eight more cities this summer, and 1.5 million books are expected to come home with students, says Greg Worrell of children's book publisher Scholastic, which is offering the books at a discount.

Like Constantino, Worrell says many low-income families "just don't have books in their home at all." But when books come home, parents are inevitably as excited as their children, says Carmel Perkins of Chicago Public Schools, which plans to hand out books to 8,600 students this summer.

"It seems so simple, but parents see it very differently," she says.

— By Greg Toppo
USA Today


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