Melaney Smith was alarmed when she learned that a little girl in a local school wasn’t looking forward to summer because she’d have no books or a way to get them.
“Imagine summer without a book to read,” says Smith. “For many children, it’s not so hard to picture.”
It’s a picture Smith wanted to change.
After researching the impact a summer without books has on students, she founded Books for Keeps in 2011. The program that began as an effort to provide one little girl with books for one summer now serves thousands of children in Clarke County schools.
Children who don’t read during summer can drop two to four months behind their classmates in reading achievement—a phenomena known as summer slide. By sixth grade, they might lag two years behind their peers. Summer slide affects children from low-income families at significantly disproportionate rates, often due to lack of access to books outside of school.
“Research shows that about one book a week is necessary to keep brain muscles moving,” says Leslie Hale, executive director of Books for Keeps, which gives books to elementary school students through its Stop Summer Slide! literacy program.
When Hale was hired in 2014, Books for Keeps distributed books in five schools. Now the organization serves 11 schools in Clarke County with plans to serve 15 schools in the county by 2019. Last spring, the organization distributed 75,000 books to children.
The signature program of Books for Keeps, Stop Summer Slide! was based on a University of Florida study that revealed having access to books over the summer is similar to attending summer school for two months—and at a fraction of the cost.
Each May, Books for Keeps sets up shop in school media centers with popular books for K-5 students stacked on tables. Class by class, students enter the mock bookstore and choose 12 books for free—their very own to keep through the summer and beyond.
“The books are so appealing even reluctant readers can’t resist,” says Hale. “The children come in and browse for what they want most and then leave with a tote bag full of books, mile-wide smiles and a pride of ownership.”
Research shows that children are more likely to read books they choose themselves, according to Hale, who sees the joy on students’ faces as they select their books.
“They feel in control and able to make choices, which is important as they grow into choosing paths to pursue in college and careers,” says the executive director, noting that children’s reading achievement is improved and school experience, enhanced.
About 85 percent of books distributed through the program are purchased from Scholastic® or similar publishers who believe in the program’s goals so offer books at reduced prices, according to Hale. The remaining 15 percent are gently-used donations.
Donated books that don’t qualify as current, popular, gently-used or suitable for children are stashed away in the Books for Keeps warehouse and brought out each summer for the organization’s annual fundraiser. Last year, 30,000 books were available at the August sale.
Almost 1,000 volunteers helped with Books for Keeps projects in the past year, according to Hale. Some venture to schools in May to help with the Stop Summer Slide! book distribution. Others assist with the annual book sale.
This year’s Jackson EMC Foundation grant helped Books for Keeps bring Stop Summer Slide! to Cleveland Road Elementary School.