SANDPOINT — This school year, 50,000 students in 18 states will buy more than a million books through the national Book Trust program, which strives to promote literacy among students from low-income families. Locally, more than 1,100 students are expected to purchase about 18,500 books this year through Book Trust.
Karen Quill, executive director of the Village Green Project, started the local nonprofit to contract with Book Trust and bring it into the Lake Pend Oreille School District. When it started, the program was available to 256 first-graders in September 2014, but through grants and donations, it has expanded to students in kindergarten through third grade. There are now 1,114 students from low-income families in the district who get to pick out, purchase, read and keep their books thanks to efforts of Quill and the Village Green Project.
"You learn to read until the end of third grade, over that, you read to learn," Quill said. "So if you haven't learned to read, you can't read to learn."
She said if students are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, they are four times more likely to quit school, which is why the program mainly focuses on students in first- through third-grade.
About 60 percent of students in the school district are on the free or reduced lunch program, which is a qualifier for the Book Trust program. Each student who is eligible for the program gets $7 a month and a Scholastic Reading Club catalog and gets to pick out and order the books they want. Quill said it also teaches the students basic management decision skills because, although they might want a copy of every book in the catalog, they have to choose which ones they want first and only spend the allotted amount. Also, every student in the class gets the catalog.
"As a class tool for the teacher, to have everybody excited and everybody involved, makes it a better program," Quill said.
Village Green is the sole provider of funds for the district's Book Trust program, so the funds are raised through small fundraisers such as grants. Larger fundraisers take money and staff, so by keeping the fundraisers in the community small, 100 percent of the funds go to Book Trust.
"Every year we struggle to get the increased money that we need, but we are getting there," Quill said.
Most recently, the Village Green Project's Book Trust program received a grant of nearly $8,300 from the Rotary Club of Sandpoint.
Rotary club member Tim Cochran said the grant will fund first- through third-graders in the program at Hope, Northside and Southside elementary schools.
"Rotary has a lot of different projects it's working on, but one of them is worldwide literacy," Cochran said.
Individual club members raised $2,813 and then the club matched that with $2,500, as well as another match of $2,750 from the Rotary district, which covers eastern Washington, northern Idaho and British Columbia.
In an email to the Daily Bee, Hope Elementary principal Sherri Hatley said it has been "incredible" to see the program grow each year to see and how excited the students are each month to select their books and to receive them.
"It is like Christmas each month when the box of books arrives," Hatley said. "... One of the happiest days in a teacher's life is the day a non-reader becomes a reader — the day the child is excited about reading when they have not been in the past — the day the child sees him or herself as a reader."
Hatley recalled two such days that stuck out in her mind, including one when a second-grader could not wait to show her his collection of books. The boy was not a reader in first-grade because he didn't like it and was not reading at grade-level, she said. On that day, he took Hatley to his desk and showed her the seven books he got for $7, informing her that the series was his favorite. He had more of the series at home and told her, "I've read them all." The books were second-grade level, and as a second-grader he now "loves reading," Hatley said.
Another day Hatley recalled involved a first-grade class. In the office, some of the staff were discussing who was going to take the Book Trust box of books to the first-grade classroom. Hatley said whoever delivers the books gets to feel like Santa Claus for a few minutes, because when the students see the box, the excitement is high and the anticipation of getting the new book, opening it and starting to read can be seen on each child's face. On that day, Hatley delivered the books.
"Gasps of excitement and cheers rang through the classroom," Hatley said. "The entire class was visibly excited about reading books that were theirs, about books they selected and about books that were not assigned by the teacher."
Hatley said the fact that students are able to select the books is a "powerful thing," as is the fact that the families do not have to worry about paying for the books. The students do not have to feel left out and the choice between food on the table or a book in the hand is not a consideration.
"The bottom line is more kids are reading books they want to read and more kids have books at home to read because of the financial support of our incredible community," Hatley said.