SANDPOINT — Never underestimate the power of a good book. Even in a world where technology crowds out simple joys such as opening a cover and turning real pages, the printed word is quietly turning the tide.
For first-grade students in Lake Pend Oreille School District elementary schools, that trend is nothing less than life changing.
“When a child learns to read, the ripple effect is amazing in their lives,” said Karen Quill, who operates a non-profit organization known as The Village Green Project.
As a part-time Bonner County resident, Quill had noticed that many students weren’t taking part in the monthly Scholastic Reading Club events and wondered why. The answer, she learned, mirrored a national trend — children from lower income families just don’t have the extra money to buy books.
Quill partnered with a national group called Book Trust, which provides kids with $7 a month to purchase books they choose themselves and take home as their very own.
“The kids who weren’t ordering books couldn’t afford them,” said Book Trust founder Jill Schatz. “That was at the heart of how the program started.”
Book Trust and, by extension, The Village Green Project, sought to get in on the ground floor of literacy by starting with first grade kids.
“Younger is better,” Schatz said. “It becomes part of their daily routine, their love. It’s a window to the world for them.”
In the Lake Pend Oreille School District, participation among first-graders is 100 percent, according to Quill, involving more than 250 local students in the program. Trisha Butler, a first-grade teacher at Kootenai Elementary School, credits Book Trust with putting books into the hands of her entire class, not just a few of them.
“Typically, when I send a book order home, only about three of 24 kids send in orders,” she said. “I look at that as 21 students not having the opportunity to get books. Book Trust has opened the door for those kids.”
The elements of personal choice and ownership combine to give the program its power, Quill pointed out.
“Choosing what you want to read and owning that book increases literacy,” she said.
Quill went on to quote statistics that point to an erosion in literacy at both the state and national level.
“Most people in America today are what we call ‘basic readers,’” she said. “And Idaho has a 10-plus percent illiteracy rate for ages 16 and older.”
The numbers become more of a concern when income gets factored in, according to Quinn.
“Low-income families tend to have zero to three books in the home — it’s just not part of their life,” she said. “With Book Trust, children from those families are bringing home two to three books a month. After 10 months, there are 20-30 books in the family. This is literally bringing reading into the home.”
Book Trust targets schools with a high population of lower-income households, making book money available to kids who normally couldn’t afford such purchases. In schools where the free and reduced lunch program enrollment is 70 percent or more — not unusual in our district — all students in grade one are funded.
“(Book Trust) is allowing all first grade students to order books,” said Casey McLaughlin, principal at Kootenai Elementary School. “This is increasing the students’ excitement, because each of them have the opportunity to have a book or books of their choosing.
“We are hoping to expand the program into 2nd grade and on up, because it is such a fantastic opportunity to get every student, regardless of socio-economic status, excited about reading,” the principal added.
Quill said McLaughlin’s goal is in keeping with what The Village Green Project already has in mind for the future of Book Trust in local schools.
“Each year, we’re going to add a grade until we get to grades 1-6,” she explained.
A coattail benefit of the program, Butler noted, is how the Scholastic purchases also rack up points that can be used for additional books in the classroom.
“I have been able to use those points to create a classroom library,” the teacher said. “So the kids get books for home and for our classroom.”
The result of having everyone in class invested in books, the Book Trust founder said, is “a much richer dialog around learning.”
Across the board, parents from lower income households are finding ways to get behind the program, often sending their children to school with an extra couple of bucks to buy another book that month.
“You know you wouldn’t see that from a family that’s scraping by if they weren’t seeing a love for reading at home,” said Schatz. “We haven’t even begun to understand where all the impact lies, but we know it’s extremely impactful for children.”
In Bonner County, Quill plans to ride the momentum in the schools and introduce the program to corporate sponsors, foundations, organizations and individuals who might be interested in helping to fund the growth into other Lake Pend Oreille School District grade levels going forward.
“Our biggest want right now is that we want the community to know Book Trust is there,” Quill said. “Learning to read makes these children more confident people and it raises the literacy level so they will become better employees in the future. It changes the community profoundly.”
Information: Sarah Quill at (808) 385-6979, Karen Quill at (808) 280-6516, or visit online at: www.booktrust.org