Closing the childhood literacy gap starts with more books at home

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Posted at 6:08 PM, Sep 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-24 13:29:35-04

GREAT FALLS — For educators, there’s no greater joy than watching students learn to read.

“It's amazing to see the looks on their faces when they crack the code, if you will, of reading,” said West Elementary reading intervention specialist Karalee Fatz. “It's just priceless.”

But for students at West Elementary School, reading is so much more than just putting sounds and words together. It’s an escape and an outlet.

Of the 420 students enrolled at West, 82% of them qualify for free or reduced lunches - an indicator of lower socioeconomic status. As such, many do not have access to books or reading materials at home, and face challenges in the education system.

Books can provide a leg up, and a path to educational achievement.

Sierra Neujahr and Jocelyn Baker are students at West Elementary, where the staff has helped them learn to read, and develop a passion for books. Both receive good grades in school and are considered leaders in the classroom among their peers.

“I enjoy books because when I open them, I can get all my stress off,” said Jocelyn Baker, a fifth-grade student. “When I'm sad or when something happened in my life. Reading gets my mind off things.”

“They've got a lot of books (at West) and the librarians here helped me out a lot and they recommended books,” Neujahr, a sixth-grader, said. “I used to not like reading, but now I'd rather read than go out and socialize.”

A significant marker for educational success occurs when most children are only 8-9 years old when schools administer third-grade reading proficiency tests. How well a child can read at the end of third grade can affect the rest of their education. A child who can’t read at grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school. If the same child lives in poverty, they are 13 times less likely to graduate.

But you can help. KRTV is teaming up with the Scripps-Howard Foundation for the “If you give a child a book…” campaign. Every dollar donated during the month of September will go toward buying new books for students, and this year’s recipient is West Elementary School.

Neujahr and Baker are thrilled at the prospect of receiving new books, but not just for themselves - for their classmates and those that lack access to books, or have not yet developed a passion for reading.

“There are some people that don’t read here, and I would just say, keep reading and then you may like it,” Baker said. “Because then you'll see the mysteries and all the excitement in the books.”

Fatz and the rest of the staff at West Elementary see first-hand how reading frequently increases a child’s capacity for learning and academic success. And the hope is that with more books in their hands, the gap between low-income students and their peers from more affluent backgrounds will narrow.

“The statistics for reading at home and reading for pleasure are gigantic,” Fatz said. “The leaps and bounds that kids will make with reading one minute, compared to five minutes a day on their own time is just astronomical. So, the more they read, the vocabulary gets better. Communication gets better.”

All the money raised from the campaign will go straight to West Elementary School in the form of brand-new books. Only monetary donations are being accepted and the Scripps Howard Foundation is matching the first $5,000 dollars raised by the community. KRTV is partnering with Scholastic to turn that money into new books we will distribute to students at West Elementary School. You can donate now through Friday. Click here if you would like to help.