Instant Access to Books Is Just the Beginning

Instant Access to Books Is Just the Beginning

By Dr. Royce Avery (originally published in the January 2019 issue of AC&E)

Many educators find themselves in a school or a classroom because they were impacted by learning and, specifically, books. This is why we often make a flawed assumption about our students: we assume that they, too, live a life filled with books. But often, this is not the case.

I am the superintendent of Manor Independent School District (ISD), a diverse school district located outside of Austin, TX, with students who come from all different backgrounds. About 70% of our students last year were on free and reduced lunch, which also means that many of our students do not have access to books at home.

Because we know literacy is key to a student’s success, we focus on equity and access for all of our learners. Without these efforts, many students would be left behind. In order to put equity and access at the forefront in our district, we have started an initiative where we bring books to the community, allowing students access to books of their choice. We have several programs that work to give students access to books anytime and anywhere. The results have been significant, and could be replicated by other schools who devote the effort and resources to the right programs.

Results Worth Sharing

Our goal is to see a year’s worth of growth in a year’s time for all students, and we’re seeing great improvement on that measurement in reading, including the following:

  • 72% of Manor ISD 5th-graders made a year’s growth in a year’s time—a 35% increase in reading from the prior year; and
  • 62% of Manor ISD 8th-graders made a year’s growth in a year’s time—a 5% increase in reading from the prior year.

How did we make this happen? An important step in the process was making a flood of high-quality reading materials available to our district community.

Books, Books Everywhere

We have an integrated set of initiatives that ensure all students have access to a variety of reading materials, both print and digital. These programs include:

  • Little Free Libraries, which as the name implies, are small, no-cost book repositories placed throughout the community in strategic locations to support students with limited access to books. This is extremely valuable to students as our community does not have a fully-staffed public library. There are currently four of these libraries located around the district, with four more ready to be placed this school year.
  • Our Reading On The Go program: We’ve outfitted a bus to be a mobile library, and it tours nearby neighborhoods, businesses, schools, and communities. This runs throughout the school year and summer, bringing a mobile bookshelf to students.
  • In addition to hard-copy books, we provide our youngest readers with access to myON®, by Renaissance®, giving them digital access to books at home whether they have internet access or not. This program supplies students enhanced digital books, matched to their interests and reading level.
  • We participate in the Texas One Book program and purchase books for our students to read over the summer. This year our district read The Mouse and the Motorcycle, which we provided to elementary students in both English and Spanish.
  • In order to provide “windows and mirrors” to our students through the texts that they read, we have purchased culturally responsive text sets for our middle school ELA classrooms. Our elementary school teachers also use picture books and novels that feature many races, genders, abilities, and identifiers, so all students can see themselves reflected in the books they read at school.
  • Each of our schools features a Literacy Wall, an area where each individual student’s picture is posted next to their benchmark data in a confidential room accessible only to teachers and administrators. The goal of this room is to track each student on an individual basis so teachers can plan and differentiate instruction.
  • To further track literacy progress, K–2 students are assessed on a monthly basis.

It is inspiring to help students develop a love of reading and create opportunities for books to bring joy to and enrich students’ lives. However, our initiatives do far more than provide fodder for uplifting stories.

More Than a Feel-good Story

We draw on high-quality research to inform our decisions about how to improve students’ early literacy experiences. Reading is critical to the development of young minds, and access to books is a big indicator of whether a child will embrace reading. Just consider these facts:

  • According to the National Institute for Literacy, children who don’t learn to read and write in the early years are at higher risk for school failure.
  • According to the National Early Literacy Panel, children most likely to have difficulties learning to read in the primary grades enter school with less exposure to text, which leads to a potential lack of prior knowledge, verbal abilities, familiarities with basic purposes, and mechanisms of reading and letter knowledge.

To minimize these negative outcomes, we address students’ literacy needs as early as possible. Manor ISD currently assesses pre-literacy skills using the Ready Set K! Assessment, which is research-based and predictive of later success in the 3rd grade. And as I mentioned, we draw on Sims-Bishop’s “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” work and multicultural literacy work from Souto-Manning, McNair, and Al-Hazza to support our use of multicultural children’s literature.

A Coordinated Community Effort

If you’d like to develop a similar campaign in your own school or district, you don’t have to work alone. Work with district partners to expand literacy options for your students. If budget is a concern, then reach out to local businesses, religious communities, and nonprofits. Tell them about your needs, and they’ll work with you to run book drives, host events, or offer monetary donations.

Offering students good books to read is crucial, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. It’s important to provide teachers adequate training and resources to help them guide students in their development of literacy skills. For example, Manor ISD has literacy coaches staffed on all nine of our elementary campuses to work with pre-K through 2nd-grade teachers. We have a full-time librarian staffed on each campus, and students have access to the library each week.

Parents are a valuable but sometimes overlooked resource in promoting literacy in the school and community, too. We have involved parents in our efforts by creating Parent Liaisons who help facilitate effective communication between the local community and school personnel about our literacy initiatives.

With a coordinated effort, sufficient resources, and a multi-pronged approach, districts can use early literacy programs to drastically improve educational outcomes for their students. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

Dr. Royce Avery is the Superintendent of Manor Independent School District in Manor, TX. Follow him on Twitter @royce_dr.