Elementary students received a huge influx of new books this spring. How huge? First-year teacher Alicia Provencal guessed it doubled the number of books for students in her second-grade classroom at the Early Childhood Center.
Onesimo Montejo-Vizcarra, a student in Provencal’s class, pulled out his favorite book currently in his reading box — “Bad Kitty Drawn to Trouble” — and proudly read through a few pages. Onesimo said although reading is hard for him, he has fun with it. He looks forward to Wednesdays, he said, when he gets to swap out the books in his reading box for a new batch.
Provencal’s students read their favorite books to adults at a celebration at their school — an event to recognize the $30,000 challenge grant from the Guido A. and Elizabeth H. Binda Foundation that funded the new books. The $15,000 grant was contingent on the district’s ability to raise an additional $15,000, a feat accomplished in a relatively short period of time thanks to several anonymous donors, said Superintendent Kevin Polston.
One of the remarkable things about this grant is that the district didn’t have to pursue it. Rather, it found the district.
A Chance Discussion
Kyle Mayer, assistant superintendent for Ottawa Area Intermediate School District and a member of the Reading Now Network, a collective effort of West Michigan school leaders and districts to improve early literacy, visited the Battle Creek-based Binda Foundation last fall.
While there, he spoke with Nancy Taber, executive director of the foundation, and offered Godfrey-Lee as an example of a district “where there are passionate educators, wonderful kids, a wonderful community but one of their greatest needs is simply books in the hands of children.”
“I didn’t intend for them to do anything about it, but they reached out and said, ‘How can we help that school?’” Mayer recalled. The challenge grant was issued and met.
The $30,000 stocked the ECC and Godfrey Elementary with 1,747 books — a dramatic increase for the schools. Books were carefully chosen after a complete inventory of the schools’ classroom and main libraries to avoid overlap, said Steve Hoelscher, a consultant who helped to implement the grant.
Focus on Reading
Polston said that education doesn’t always do the best job of providing books for classrooms, and teachers often end up spending their own money to stock their rooms with books.
“It’s our responsibility for our students to have robust classroom libraries and in particular, ones that are culturally-responsive,” Polston said.
Godfrey-Lee has placed a big emphasis on literacy this year, from partnering with ReadGR for book distributions that give students a free book to bring home, to hosting regular visits from KDL’s Bookmobile.
Enhancing the number of books at the ECC and Godfrey Elementary was a key recommendation of High Impact Leadership, a $12.5 million project funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The project, a partnership of Western Michigan University, Reading Now Network, and the General Education Leadership Network, is working with 76 schools and ISDs to improve early literacy.
Not Just Any Books
Peter Geerling, principal at the Early Childhood Center, said the Binda Foundation grant is so important because, simply stated, “It costs a lot of money to get books.”
In March, the schools held an “unboxing” of books purchased with through the grant funds. Students and teachers gathered as the boxes were opened and had a chance to dig in and check out the new inventory.
“It was like watching Christmas morning,” Geerling recalled.
While teachers do their best, seeking literature at summer garage sales and other places, the classroom books aren’t always the best quality — both in content and in durability, he said, adding that sometimes the messages are outdated and not necessarily reflective of the students who read them. The books selected with the grant funds mitigate that problem.
Polston said the district could have bought even more books had they opted for lower quality. However, they chose library-quality books meant to last through years of use by the many little hands through which they will pass.
Both Polston and Geerling touted the importance of choosing books that were culturally-responsive to the population of students that would read the books.
“There’s a conscious effort here to make sure that our students are able to see themselves in the books, and that’s what they get: they can see a student that looks like them, that lives in the same type of areas as them, and it makes that connection that much more real,” Geerling said.
Polston said the district will continue to find ways to add more high-quality, culturally-responsive books to its classrooms.
“Our students deserve that,” he said.