Charity hopes donating books cheaper alternative to pricey ed programs

Posted on: October 12th, 2011 by Mikhail Zinshteyn No Comments

Noel Hammatt has a bone to pick with the billions of federal and state dollars being thrown at poor kids in under-served communities.

Put simply, too much attention is centered on in-school matters, and the brick and mortar operations to keep kids from going astray after-hours are strapped for funding.

The Baton Rouge-based service project that Hammatt helped kick start, Reinforcing the Rewards of Reading, Building a Better Baton Rouge (3R’s for 3BR), part of the Kiwanis Club of Baton Rouge, has a few thousand dollars on hand to do what after-school programs, summer, and private daycare programs promise to achieve with much bigger price tags: boost literacy among low-income students.

“For a much lower cost per child, we can increase the entry scores for students significantly,” said Hammatt, a former teacher of the year finalist, instructor on education at Louisiana State University, and founder of 3R’s for 3BR. After three years of planning, his program launched last week with financial backing from The Kiwanis International Foundation.

The local Baton Rouge Kiwanis branch will provide three years of funding for 3R’s for 3BR, contributing tens of thousands of new and used books to households with young kids straddling the poverty level. Book shelves will be set up in community areas–so far there are four, including a regional medical center where many young adults bring their kids due to limited babysitting options. Parents, or guardians, will be able to read to their children with free books, and then have the opportunity to take the tomes home.

Home library as effective as summer school, college educated parents

This is not a program that is likely to be effective for middle-class pupils. The various reasons under-privileged students lag in performance indicators–lack of access to safe, public spaces, the greater likelihood of a college educated guardian, limited access to after-school and weekend entertainment due to household finances– do not encumber wealthier students. As John B. King Jr., New York state’s Education Commissioner, said in response to a TAI question at an extended-learning hearing in Washington D.C., “Affluent families are doing lots of things for their kids outside of schools, its just poorer families can’t afford those things.

“Tomorrow is Saturday and I’m taking my daughter out to dance class… and I have the means to do that,” King said.

3R’s for 3BR is geared at younger readers for a reason: poor students already trail considerably their wealthier peers — three months at the kindergarten level to three years at the fourthgrade level in the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils. More recently, in 2010, a Annie E. Casey Foundation report showed 83 percent of poor students who took NAEP in fourth grade were not proficient in reading, compared to 55 percent of moderate to wealthy students.

For the lower rungs, a bevy of research suggests targeted efforts to give poorer students the tools that boost reading can make up for those limited household resources.

An Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report that examined over 20 countries concluded (PDF) socioeconomic factors outside the classroom are the most significant variable in a student’s success.

And studies like this one show simply putting a book into an economically disadvantaged child’s hands can galvanize reading scores, since often poor families have few, if any, books in the house. The study concluded overcoming one of the greatest symptoms of lower-economic status, the summer reading slide, takes nothing more than spending $50 on books per child for the summer.

That’s an inexpensive stopgap to a problem in which poor students enter the fall three months behind their wealthier peers each year. For added measure, the co-author said a home library was “equal to the effect of summer school.” Summer school is usually for remedial learning—increased access to books might obviate the need for additional instruction in the first place.

And what about the suspicion poorer families lack the commitment or interest to read to their children? As far Steve Bialostok–an early childhood literacy professor at the University of Wyoming–is concerned, there’s little to undergird that truth.

“I’ll just say that there’s a folk model among those who are middle class…that poor(er) families – even given the resources such as books – don’t read to their kids, either due to lack of time, desire, or both,” Bialostok begins. “I simply do not believe this is true.”

Hammat doesn’t shy away from the social imperatives 3R’s for 3BR represents. “We cannot ensure that the books will continue to be read once they leave our sites,” he says. That said, Hammatt says there are a lot of parents who relish at the opportunity to read to their kids when given the chance, and as this USA Today article from 2010 indicates, that’s usually half the battle. In the first days of the program, bookshelves at two of the four site locations are nearly empty—for now, parents want them.

3R’s for 3BR also offers tips to parents whose reading skills may not to be up to speed, designed by Hammatt’s sister-in-law who’s a retired kindergarten teacher. If a parent of guardian is unfamiliar with a particular word, they’re encouraged to ask the child where the plot might turn to next. Pointing out colors and counting objects is also recommended, and stressing relational terms is key–words like bigger and smaller.

Zeroing in on domestic factors affecting child learning, a 27-country study released in 2010 the International Sociological Association Research Committee found that:

Children growing up in homes with many books get three years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.

Data from the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — the gold standard in evaluating student learning administered by the U.S. Department of Education — underscores the link between volume of books in the house and student achievement. The chart below compares fourth grade performance in reading with books in the home.

User-generated chart relying on data from U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2009 Reading Assessment

Looking more closely at urban schools, 100 books in an underprivileged child’s home catches up that student to a wealthier child with 25 books. With 3R’s for 3BR projecting 100 books will cost roughly $350, the academic effect is equivalent to adding several thousand dollars to household income.

For Hammatt, who falls on the side of the education debate that views out of school factors as far more influential than school campus matters in a child’s education, greater access to literacy is his attempt to make socio-economics a moot issue.

Back to Baton Rouge

In the relatively poor and mostly black school district of East Baton Rouge Parish, inexpensive alternatives meant to improve student learning can’t come soon enough.

Louisiana’s early education initiative, LA4, which enrolls four-year-olds into pre-k education services, has seen per pupil spending drop off even as the program’s popularity has increased. The Pelican State spent $5,700 per Pre-K student in 2002 and only $4,706 in 2010 while participation increased from 12 percent to 32 percent of the state’s four-year olds, according to the most recent National Institute for Early Education Research report on early education funding.

In the 2011-2012 school year, of East Baton Rouge Parish’s 42,700 students 88 percent were non-white and 80 percent received free and reduced lunches.

To get more of the community involved, 3R’s for 3BR has reached out to sororities of historically black colleges to volunteer as on-site readers. Currently, the majority of the volunteers are white. “By and large, the parents of young Black children ARE the program,” Hammatt says. “We are simply making the books available.”

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