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School book drives help more children gain access to reading material

November 1, 2003

By Stephanie Dunnewind - Seattle Times staff reporter

Printed in the November 1, 2003 issue of The Seattle Times, this story is available on the newspaper's website.

Bryant Elementary School fifth-graders wrote this poem on a poster to advertise their recent book drive, dubbed Book It:

Some people hold books
as if they were a prize
They simply can't afford it
So if you join Book It
You really are wise
If you donate books
really really fast
The people who receive them
will really have a blast

Collecting books for the Seattle-based organization Page Ahead made students think about something they take for granted in this comfortable North End neighborhood: access to reading material.

"It sort of surprised me how many kids in Seattle need books," said Dagmar Knechtel, 10. "A lot more need them than I thought."

Natalie Mecham, 10, agreed: "I realized, like, I'm actually pretty lucky. Here I am with a huge bookcase of all the books I've read and other kids have a total of maybe five books in their whole home."

Page Ahead, a nonprofit that distributes donated books to schools, preschools, public health clinics and housing developments around the state, usually works with businesses (Boeing Co. employees, for example, are responsible for nearly a quarter of Page Ahead's books). But it hopes to encourage more elementary-school book drives, which enlist kids' help for other students.

"They know what the kids we serve are going to want," said Page Ahead executive director Sam Whiting.

The program targets children through age 12, handing out about three books per child at 200 sites around the state. Started in 1990 as Books for Kids, it now distributes about 145,000 books a year and gave away its millionth in June.

Bryant's drive, organized by Steve Garlid's class, brought in 600 new and 200 used books. The students set out boxes in each classroom, collected the donated books each day, sorted them and kept track of classroom tallies for a competition.

"Most of the kids we're serving don't have new anything," Whiting said. "We want the (book) quality to be high so they'll be really excited about it."

And, as Mecham explained, "there's something special about a new book, being the first one to open it. Getting a used book sort of takes away the luster of it."

Numerous studies show that children who read for fun (or are read to) do better in school. A 2001 U.S. Department of Education survey found that if a family member had read to a preschooler more than three times in the week prior to the survey, the child was almost twice as likely to show preliteracy skills such as recognizing letters, writing his name and pretending to read.

However, families who live in poverty are less likely to read to children; with preschoolers, researchers found a gap of 16 percentage points between the number of poor families and wealthier ones, where someone reads to kids at least three times a week.

Page Ahead serves entire schools if 60 percent or more of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch; it also targets special education or English as a Second Language classes.

"For many of our students, this is the only way to build a home reading library; they just don't have the resources," said Sunny Moroles, a bilingual instructional assistant at West Seattle's Sanislo Elementary School. Moroles coordinates the school's Washington Reading Corps program.

Books are distributed at events throughout the year, including a family reading night, a muffin breakfast and a young author's conference in the spring. "The kids are always thrilled to get a new book," Moroles said. "If parents haven't heard about the program, many will call and ask, 'Is this to keep?' "

More than half Page Ahead's books come from a grant from the national organization Reading is Fundamental. RIF pays $1.50 per book and requires recipients to raise a local match to make up the difference. Organizations that qualify order books through Scholastic, and Page Ahead provides the matching funds.

For other programs, Page Ahead brings locally donated books to the site so children can select a favorite. "We always include at least 10 percent more titles than children, so even the last child to the table gets a choice," said Kelly Schermer, community partnership program coordinator.

Besides free books, Page Ahead arranges for community volunteers to conduct storytimes and offers workshops to parents on how to read with children.

"We've realized how vital it is for us to educate parents and caregivers about the importance of reading and to teach them how to use the books effectively at home," Schermer said.

Schools that host book drives also find rewards. Last year, The Meridian School, a private Seattle elementary school, asked each student to donate one book. Students wrote a brief book review on a bookmark with their name and then the book's recipient wrote a thank-you letter, starting a sort of pen-pal exchange, Whiting said.

Garlid's fifth-graders enthusiastically recommended book drives to other schools, saying that books were more meaningful than toys. "We picked books because reading is a whole part of life," said Brittany Hazzard, 10.

And, said 10-year-old Una Miller, "Books don't just help your reading skills; they also help your imagination."

Printed in the November 1, 2003 issue of The Seattle Times, this story is available on the newspaper's website.

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