The Gift of Reading: Reflections on Collecting 550 Books for Students

by Joanna Kemp

The University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development Ready Freddy program partners with schools and groups in low-income communities to help children and families experience a positive and successful transition into kindergarten. The program also engages in efforts to prevent chronic absenteeism among kindergartners by recruiting young people through the Public Allies Pittsburgh program to work in targeted elementary schools. Public Ally and University of Pittsburgh graduate Joanna Kemp is currently assigned to Pittsburgh Langley K-8 school through Ready Freddy, where she works with the school social worker and four kindergarten teachers to improve kindergarten attendance.

Just one month into my placement at the Pitt Office of Childhood Development’s (OCD) program Ready Freddy, a kindergarten teacher at Pittsburgh Langley K-8 shared some news that I found startling, but sadly she had heard countless times over the years. A parent of one of her students confided to her, “I would read to my kids but we don’t have any books at home.”

Upon hearing this, I was initially unsure what to do with the information. I was still new to Public Allies, Ready Freddy, and the teachers, parents, and community that make up the school I would be working at for the next nine months. I knew that my work at Langley was supposed to be focused on attendance messaging to decrease the rate of chronic absence in kindergarten.

I kept thinking about all of the statistics we use when talking about the importance of attendance. It seems like everything comes back to reading at grade level. One study showed that only 17 percent of the students who were chronically absent in kindergarten can read at grade level by 3rd grade. Our prisons look at the 3rd grade reading levels of local schools to estimate how much space they will need in 10 years.

At Ready Freddy, we focus on positive kindergarten transition, parent engagement, and regular school attendance so that children will have a strong academic start. Thinking about all of these things, I had the justification I needed to at least try to do something that would put more books into the hands of the kindergartners I work with at Langley.

I decided to do a book drive in November, and distribute as many books as I could in mid-December. I originally set out to collect 250 gently used books, but in just one month we were able to collect 550 books from parents, teachers, and other community partners. A week before the holiday recess, each child was able to take home five books of their own.

We know that giving books to students is a wonderful way to support their literacy development, ensure that parents are able to read to them every night, and instill in them a lifelong love of reading. I really felt that we were giving these students and their parents the best gift we can give to anyone: the gift of reading. Giving them any amount of books would have been a success, but allowing them to pick five books they wanted to learn to read was amazing.

The book drive and distribution was such a success that the same kindergarten teacher who sparked the initial conversation commented that we should do it again in the spring.

I have already received funding from Ready Freddy that allowed me to purchase one brand new book for each kindergartner at Langley. Being able to collect and give books to the families at Langley was an awesome and empowering experience that I am grateful to have had during my time as an Ally. I could not have done it without all the support and encouragement from my placement supervisor and OCD director, Aisha White, the school social worker, Sarah Armenti, and the staff at Public Allies. I am already anxiously awaiting the spring so we can do it all over again!