Posted May 26, 2017 – Roughly a quarter of Houston-area schoolchildren struggle with basic reading skills, test scores show. Yet many of them lack books at home to practice. Even getting to a public library can be hard for families without cars.
To lessen the literacy challenge, the University of Houston College of Education has partnered with the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation to stock the home bookshelves of hundreds of local elementary school students. The program is called My Home Library.
“Are y’all excited?” Alicia Lewis, the principal of Blackshear Elementary School, asked her students on a recent afternoon.
“Yeah!” several shouted.
The youngsters knew what to expect. They had the opportunity two months earlier to select from a long list of books they wanted.
“Giving students choice in what they read helps motivate them,” explains Anne McClellan, executive director of growth and innovation at the College of Education and a former school principal.
Just days before summer vacation, Lewis was able to distribute 3,150 books to her students thanks to My Home Library. Every student received a red backpack filled with six books.
“I think it’s fun to take them home so we can get better at reading,” one fourth-grader said, smiling, as she showed off her choices, which included “The Last Doll” and “Mummy in Her Backpack.”
The girl estimated she had only two or three books at home.
According to a survey conducted as part of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a quarter of fourth-graders in the Houston Independent School District reported having 10 or fewer books at home. About 75 percent of the students in HISD are economically disadvantaged.
“We can’t expect children’s reading achievement levels to improve if they don’t have books in their homes to practice their skills,” said Julie Baker Finck, president of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. “My Home Library empowers children with the right tools.”
Having books to read is particularly important over the summer to help at-risk students from falling further behind.
Lewis said she purposefully held the book giveaway event during an awards assembly for her students to show that reading is something to celebrate.
“We have a huge partnership with UH,” Lewis told the students as they gathered in the school cafeteria, where a large red University of Houston flag hangs on the wall. “They are consistently supporters of our effort to ensure our scholars are reading on grade level.”
Blackshear Elementary, less than a mile from UH, is one of six schools in Third Ward that the College of Education is working with as part of the University’s Third Ward Initiative. Teaching majors from the college volunteered as reading tutors in the schools during the 2016-17 academic year, and student-teachers trained at Blackshear and Foster Elementary, helping grow a pipeline of educators to serve in high-need schools.
Baker Finck said she hopes to expand the My Home Library program next year beyond Blackshear, HISD’s Browning Elementary and Treasure Forest Elementary in Spring Branch ISD. Donors can sponsor a child’s wish list of books for $30.
“Improving early literacy is one of the most important steps we can take to set up students for success in college and beyond,” said Robert McPherson, dean of the College of Education.
While the book giveaway at Blackshear Elementary wound down, a soft-spoken 10-year-old student named Passion shared her plans for the coming months as she put her new Goosebumps and Captain Underpants books into her backpack.
“I’ll be reading all summer!” she said.
–By Ericka Mellon
–Photos by Jaime Questell