Books on Break: instilling the opportunity for — and joy of — reading

Posted 6/14/19

I walked into Siler City Elementary School’s library last Thursday morning feeling like I’d stumbled unsuspectingly into a gold mine.

The treasure? Books, and lots of them.

Libraries are …

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Books on Break: instilling the opportunity for — and joy of — reading

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I walked into Siler City Elementary School’s library last Thursday morning feeling like I’d stumbled unsuspectingly into a gold mine.

The treasure? Books, and lots of them.

Libraries are overflowing with books, of course, but on this day — the occasion was the Chatham Education Foundation’s “Books on Break” program, a massive end-of-the-year book distribution — tables throughout the library, and tops of bookshelves everywhere, were jam-packed with several thousand brand-new paperback and hardback books.

I’m a book guy, and even as a child I’d rather have gone to a library or bookstore than the proverbial candy store. But even more exciting to me (and to CEF staffers and board members who were on hand to help) were the scores of young students excitedly sorting through those books. I witnessed 3rd- and 4th-graders talking enthusiastically (but quietly, of course) amongst themselves about which ones they’d be taking home for the summer, eyes bright with eager anticipation.

CEF’s executive director, the ebullient Jaime Detzi, invited me to the foundation’s fourth Books on Break program distribution. We share a love for education and literacy, and Jaime and I share another commonality as well: I’m on the board of the Lee County’s Education Foundation, going into my fourth year as its chairman — meaning that we both devote a lot of time (she as a staff member, me as a volunteer) to finding ways to raise the bar for student performance.

So we love books, and this was a celebratory occasion. Books on Break is held annually there and at Virginia Cross Elementary, two schools in Siler City where, combined, nearly nine out of 10 students qualify for Chatham County Schools’ free or reduced lunch program. The percentage of students reading at grade level is alarmingly low. But with grant funds from Duke Energy, Chatham Reads, Dollar General, the Carolina Hurricanes and Carolina Meadows, Books on Break is part of an effort with a lofty ambition: to get 80 percent of the school system’s 3rd-graders reading at or above grade level by the year 2020.

Statistics show that two-thirds of children living in poverty don’t have books in their homes, and more than 80 percent of children from economically disadvantaged communities lose valuable reading skills because they don’t pick up a book during the summer — adding to up three years’ worth of learning loss by the fifth grade for some of them.

Books on Break’s premise, then, is simple: because our schools’ youngest readers lose some ground they’ve gained after the school year ends, give them a jump-start as summer begins. By letting the children select and keep five books (kids in pre-K to 2nd grade actually get six), book recipients will have not just the motivation, but also the opportunity to spend part of their out-of-school summertime engrossed in reading.

In years past, Jaime has gotten thank-you notes from many of the students. She pointed out that students who have taken part in the program for four years now have a library of at least 20 books back home to read and share with siblings and other family members. “And teachers love it,” she said. “Every year they ask if we’re coming back.”

All told, more than 1,350 students in the two schools took home more than 7,000 new books last week. Each of the students also received a sturdy blue bookbag and a bookmark — as well as some words of encouragement from Sarah Linkhorn, the foundation’s marketing director. Sarah gave the students a million-word challenge: read 15 minutes a day, every day, and in a year, you’ll have read more than a million words.

With help from Chatham County Schools and the county’s public library system, the opportunities are there. There’s also a pilot program working now that allows some Chatham students to use a school library card at a county libraries. Talk about a gold mine: I got my Chatham Community Library card two weeks ago and have already filled my Kindle e-reader with books (and my iPhone) with audiobooks, courtesy of the library’s digital loan program).

Not being a student there, of course, I walked out of Siler City Elementary on Thursday without a new book. But the experience gave me new excitement for, and an even greater appreciation of, this lifelong skill of reading. Thanks to Chatham County Schools and the work of Jaime and her Education Foundation staff and board, I’m part of a growing crowd.


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