Kids book program to expand to 150 Philly elementary schools

Angelis Leon, a third grader at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School, finds the books she ordered through the Book Trust. The non-profit allows young readers to choose their books.

Angelis Leon, a third grader at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School, finds the books she ordered through the Book Trust. The non-profit allows young readers to choose their books. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Gilbert Spruance Elementary third-grader Jewel Alston rushed back to her desk Monday morning with brand new copies of “How Not to Start the Third Grade”, “The Lemonade War” and a word game book.

“I just love to read now,” Jewel said as she cracked open her books, though she admits that wasn’t the case a year ago.

“She read because she was supposed to read,” said Shelly Alston, Jewel’s grandmother. “I think reading was like expected and now it seems more like it’s a joy to do it.”

The difference for Jewel was a pilot program that allotted her $7 a month to spend on books of her choosing this school year.

Book Trust, a Colorado nonprofit running the stipend program, and the Philadelphia School District announced a more than $9 million effort Monday to expand that pilot to the 150 elementary schools in the district over the next four years, reaching some 40,000 students.

The hope is to replicate Jewel’s enthusiasm in thousands of other Philadelphia schoolchildren.

Book Trust believes getting kids access to books through classroom libraries is not enough to spark a desire to read.

If students like Jewel get to have a say in what they read and keep what they pick, Book Trust believes they’re more likely to make reading a lifelong habit.

The nonprofit partnered with 10 elementary schools in the district last year with a $325,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation. William Penn is the lead grant donor for the expansion with $1.3 million. Next year, the program will be in 50 Philly schools.

In a district where only 36% of third-grade students read at grade level or better, and financial constraints may limit students’ abilities to build personal libraries, the program aims to build excitement by giving students kindergarten through 3rd grade a sense of ownership.

Book delivery days are treated as a special day and students get to write their name in the books with markers.

“Students will be caught reading books when they’re not supposed to be reading books,” said Danielle Murray, the school-based teacher lead for literacy at Gilbert Spruance. “They’ll take the books to lunch with them instead of running around and playing for recess.”

That’s the sort of metric Book Trust tries to measure.

Harley Belance, 9, a thrid grader at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School, reads with Tiffany Kuehner, president and CEO of the Book Trust.
Harley Belance, 9, a third grader at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School, reads with Tiffany Kuehner, president and CEO of the Book Trust. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Is that child reading more at home?” asked Tiffany Kuehner, Book Trust president and CEO. “Is that child looking at more title recognition of books in the classroom? Can the child identify what kind of books they like to read?”

Superintendent William Hite said the partnership builds on district efforts to get 100 percent of eight-year-olds in the district to read at or above grade level.

“We know what happens if they don’t read on grade level by the time they’re eight,” he said. “They tend to stay behind and more money is spent on interventions and catching children up.”

Hite said students who are able to read at grade level by the time they reach the third-grade graduate and attend school at higher rates.

Still, students like Jewel are simply enjoying the monthly ritual of getting a Scholastic Book Club flyer and budgeting their $7 stipend.

“The $1 books are babyish to me,” said Jewel, who likes to spread out her stipend, but doesn’t like blowing her budget on one big book.

Samagh Weal said he’d go for a $1 book or a $7 book, as long as it’s something he’s interested in.

Samagh’s attitude about reading hasn’t changed all that much this year. He needs the right space and the right books.

“If it’s a loud place and if I don’t like the book, I’m not going to read it,” he said.

For his final Book Trust haul of the year, Samagh got “The Pool Party from the Black Lagoon” at the recommendation of his peers and “Chicken on Vacation” because “it’s about to be summer.”

Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation supports WHYY.

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