In the Beginning, All Need the Word

On at least one point, early childhood educators unanimously agree: Providing children with books is the best way to help them develop language skills and enhance creativity, imagination, and a love of learning. In fact, a 2003 study by the National Center for Family Literacy found that being read to as a child, and having books to rifle through at home, were the two most important indicators of future academic success.

But what happens when a family can’t afford books, or when household members are themselves illiterate? What about the more than 30 million children—44 percent of the total—who live in low-income households, at or near the poverty level, without bookshelves stocked with texts appropriate for toddlers and school-aged kids? What of the thousands of underfunded classrooms and after-school programs that don’t have the resources to buy new materials? Do they simply languish?

Of course not, at least if an organization called First Book [firstbook.org] has anything to say about it. Founded as a national nonprofit in 1992—with a fledgling chapter in Brooklyn that began in 2011—the organization offers small grants to teachers and providers of after-school care if 70 percent of the kids they’ve enrolled come from low-income families. The First Book Marketplace then allows them to purchase new books at a huge discount—up to 90 percent below retail. As the project’s co-founder Kyle Zimmer explains, First Book is a successful example of “social entrepreneurship.”

In order to carry out its mission, First Book has partnered with the American Federation of Teachers to reach educators in every corner of the U.S. To date, nearly 100 million books have been distributed to 35,000 schools, youth centers, and agencies serving toddlers, teens, and those in-between. What’s more, Marketplace book sales have fueled First Book’s growth, allowing it to expand exponentially. Indeed, revenue raised from the sale of donated items is credited with fueling the organization’s near-constant development.

And the books? Titles range from graphic novels to mysteries, college prep workbooks to classics. There are poetry books, biographies, and works exploring science, math, technology and nature as well as bilingual Spanish/English and French/English volumes. Even better, in addition to items that would otherwise have been remaindered, long time favorites are also offered, Amelia Bedelia; Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret; Beezus and Ramona; Bebes del mundo/Global Babies; and Goodnight Moon, among them.

Not surprisingly, the availability of these texts has been a boon to teachers. Take New York State. Although the legislature upped school funding by 4 percent for 2012-13, this was the first increase in three years and did not come close to meeting the need. As the New York Post reported in October, projected budget deficits have already prompted 400 of the City’s 1,700 public schools to appeal to the Department of Education for additional funding; each petition argues that financial shortfalls will hamper the school’s ability to complete the academic year.

What’s more, budget gaps have had a dramatic impact on educators, with teachers—along with everyone else connected to the school system, from bus drivers to security guards—often using their own money to purchase materials for students. To wit: A 2010 survey by the National School Supply & Equipment Association [NSSEA.org] found that 92 percent of teachers purchased supplies and 85 percent bought instructional materials for those they teach. “Teachers’ personal money is the most common source of funding for classroom projects,” the NSSEA concluded. “On average, teachers spent a total of $398 on school supplies and an additional $538 on educational materials.” The final tally: $3.5 billion.

Needless to say, bargains are highly regarded by this coterie of munificent shoppers, women and men who are doing their best to create an environment that is conducive to learning.

That said, experts agree that there is no replacement for public funding for public education. Furthermore, while advocates of public education see First Book’s efforts as valiant, they see stocking school libraries and providing teachers with needed resources as a government responsibility. Likewise, they argue that providing an equal education for all—regardless of where one lives or what one’s parents earn—is a municipal obligation.

“Private initiatives are certainly helpful,” says Gregory Tewksbury, a Windsor Terrace- based educational consultant and researcher. “But they don’t offer a consistent or systemic way to meet the needs of the many public schools that are suffering from the politics of austerity.”

Cash-strapped schools, however, whether in Biloxi or Brooklyn, are grateful to First Book for the help it offers.

Michele Wells, a 35-year-old editor at Disney and the author of several children’s and SAT/PSAT/ACT prep books, brought First Book to Brooklyn in the fall of 2011. She first got involved in literacy work through Everybody Wins, a 21-year-old project that pairs mentors from the business world with kids who are having academic difficulties. “I began tutoring in 2008,” she begins. “Both of the kids I worked with hated reading. They were way behind and needed a lot of attention. I definitely enjoyed working one-on-one with each of them, but after several years I found myself wanting to do something on a larger, less individual, scale. Reading is like breathing for me,” she laughs. “I’ve been reading since I was two. Honestly, you learn so much about the world when you read. On a personal level I felt like I made some headway with the kids I tutored, but I eventually needed to do something that would have more of a social impact.”

Wells had heard of First Book years before becoming involved—it was a project that Penguin Books, a former employer, supported—and as she looked for a new literacy outlet, she learned that Brooklyn did not have a chapter. In short order, she set out to start one.

“I contacted First Book-National and got information on how to begin,” Wells says. “I also started going to meetings of First Book-Manhattan.” As she learned the ropes of the organization—her education included a crash course in grassroots fundraising—she began to put together a Board of Directors for Brooklyn, pulling in individuals with expertise in publishing, public relations, marketing, accounting, editing, and working in nonprofits.

Their first event, a party at Galapagos Art Space, netted $2,500. Other fundraisers—a reading featuring Young Adult writer Peter Brown, author of Kaline Klattermaster’s Tree House and The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder, and a Brooklyn Cyclones game—netted thousands more and allowed First Book-Brooklyn to issue its first grant, for $5,000, last summer. The recipient, Sunset Park’s P.S. 503, The School of Discovery, is a pre-K to 5th grade program that serves 944 students, 93 percent of whom are poor and more than half of whom have been designated as English Language Learners.

“To give a grant of $5,000 to a program is an amazing thing,” Wells gushes, her smile widening with every word. “We worked so hard to make it happen, but it felt fantastic.” Still, Wells recognizes that the borough’s needs are extensive. Nonetheless, she has high hopes for the group’s second year, noting that if First Book-Brooklyn can raise $32,000 they’ll be able to provide new books to two percent of Brooklyn’s neediest school kids. As the magnitude of this sinks in, Wells momentarily looks a bit dejected and lets on that she is moving to Los Angeles at year’s end—a job transfer. Then, in an abrupt shift, her smile again brightens and her optimism reappears. After all, she says, since only 46 percent of fourth graders from low-income families read at grade level—compared with 77 percent of upper-income kids—the future demands that we do something, and fast.

Contributor

Eleanor J. Bader

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