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Local nonprofit outfits more than 4,300 Minneapolis students with books

Start Reading Now
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Through its book fairs these past two weeks, Start Reading Now has matched more than 4,300 Minneapolis Public Schools students, across 25 schools, with 10 free books each.

One week out from summer break, a classroom of second-graders at Lyndale Community School filed into a room filled with portable Scholastic book cases. Seated on the floor, awaiting instructions, many began scoping out the shelves for familiar titles and popular characters — like Legos, princesses and books in the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.  

Then a book fair organizer introduced the $50 paper voucher each student was about to receive.

By a quick show of hands, many of them already knew the drill, because they’d participated in the book fair as first-graders last year: Select any 10 books and use the voucher to pay for them.

As the students dispersed across the room to build their own little libraries, some zeroed in on the books they wanted faster than others. But in a matter of 10 to 20 minutes, they all had an armful of reading material to keep them busy over the coming months.

Amaya, 7, had complied a stash of chapter books. She read the books she picked out last year “a lot of times” and keeps them on display in her family’s dining room.

Anas, 8, was on the lookout for “books with action in it.” His haul included one for his younger sister — something he might save to give her for her birthday, he said.

Getting students invested in reading is one of the main objectives of these book fairs, say the co-founders of Start Reading Now, the Minneapolis nonprofit behind this and other free book fairs in the Minneapolis Public Schools district.

It’s about “putting the power directly into the hands of kids, to control their own reading,” said Pam Longfellow, co-founder of Start Reading Now.

Outfitting low-income students in first, second and third grade with their own home library ensures that these young readers have access to grade-level reading material outside of school. It solves a basic hurdle many of these students might otherwise face to becoming fluent readers by the end of third grade — an achievement researchers have identified as a critical literacy benchmark.

book fair organizer
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Kevin Terrell, co-founder of Start Reading Now, introducing book name tags students each student was about to receive.
Through its book fairs these past two weeks, Start Reading Now has matched more than 4,300 Minneapolis Public Schools students, across 25 schools, with 10 free books each.

The enthusiasm this event helps generate around reading right before summer break is on full display in the hallways, says Lyndale’s principal, Mark Stauduhar: “It’s like baseball cards — or Pokemon cards these days at Lyndale.”

“I think it’s a way to show other people you are a reader,” he said.

Empowering young readers with books

The program started in 2014, as a pilot project at a handful of schools in the district. They took it citywide in 2016. And last year they brought it full scale, serving all three grades across all schools where at least half of their students qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch.

This year also marks the first time students who’ve participated in the program as first-, second-, and third-graders — a count of at least 1,000 students — have gone on to take the state reading test as fourth-graders. Kevin Terrell, co-founder of the nonprofit, says they’re in the process of doing an impact analysis, the results of which will be available later this month through an outside firm hired to pull the data.

He expects to see outcomes similar to those published in a 2010 study that inspired the creation of Start Reading Now.

Researchers, led by University of Tennessee professor Richard Allington, found that equipping elementary students at high-poverty schools with books of their own choice translated into greater gains in reading skills, compared to their peers not given the home libraries.

Terrell says he’d love to take the program statewide. He’d also love to foster great collaboration with two other initiatives geared toward building early literacy skills and a culture of reading at home — Reach Out and Read, which connects parents with free books through pediatricians, and ParentPowered Texts, which connects parents with free developmental tips and literacy tips for their children, from birth to age 5 — to build a solid early literacy support system for low-income families in Minnesota.

“We’d be the only state that has a promise to kids: ‘You have your own library of 40 books, with prenatal support,” he said. 

Currently, three large donors contribute about $50,000 each, per year, to support Start Reading Now. Terrell’s family pitches in another $10,000 to $20,000 a year as well, he said. They operate on volunteer power alone, which includes two women doing part-time work to keep things up and running.

Jim Wolford, CEO of Atomic Data, one of the three major donors, volunteered at a book fair earlier this week. He views the book fairs as a very low-cost opportunity to help change students’ academic trajectories.

I’m very anti-screens, even though I’m a tech guy,” he said. “I really like the book — the idea of the handling of it, the low-tech of it.”

Start Reading Now
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
This year marks the first time students who’ve participated in the program as first-, second-, and third-graders have gone on to take the state reading test as fourth-graders.
The book fairs are not meant to supplant summer trips to the library. But Wolford says they especially benefit students whose parents don’t always have time to take them to their local library “over and over again, and sort of indoctrinate them into that process.”

Looking to meet students where they are, local librarians volunteer at the book fairs as well. It’s an opportunity to advertise other summer learning activities, including a Hennepin County Library program for youth through grade six to complete a book review worksheet, turn it in at one of 41 library branches, and receive a free book.

The check-out table at the book fair resembles the check-out counter at a library.

Taking inventory of his book pile before trading in his voucher, Jasper, 7, spread all of his books out on a table in the middle of the room. Thinking aloud, he signaled approval of his collection.

“Yep — this is what I want!” he declared, victoriously throwing a fist up into the air and taking an excited hop backwards.

At first he’d scoured the shelves for “books with special items” — like stickers and toys — he said. But then he found a graphic novel with illustrations that reminded him of the popular Minecraft game. So he added it to his mix.

He’s not the only student leaving with an extra bounce in his step.

“One little girl kissed her book on the way out,” a volunteer announced to the organizers during a lull before a new class came into the room. “It was so sweet.”

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