You can bet if Clifford the Big Red Dog is hanging around, someone is talking about books and reading.
Well, the giant furry pooch was at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Kansas City on Thursday morning, and that’s where area literacy advocates, the United Way of Greater Kansas City and Scholastic Books kicked off a new children’s reading initiative that will give some city school children free books.
My Very Own Library, a reading program designed to put books in the hands of children from families that might not otherwise be able to afford them, launched in the first of seven participating Kansas City public schools.
At Banneker and each of the other six elementary schools — Faxon, Garfield, Longfellow, Primitivo Garcia, Troost and Wendell Phillips at Attucks — students will get the chance to build their own home libraries. Throughout the school year, the My Very Own Library program will distribute more than 24,700 books to students.
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Three times during the school year, students will select a few books they want during a Scholastic Book Fair at their school — a total of 10 books for each child. “The best part,” said Stephanie Davern of Scholastic Books, is “they get to keep the books they choose forever.”
The library at Banneker was filled with students from kindergarten through sixth grade for Thursday’s launch. Students erupted into cheers and applause when they learned they would be taking home free books and a My Very Own Library backpack to tote them in.
“I’m glad we got to get new books,” said Widnor Louis, a 12-year-old Banneker sixth-grader and the student-body secretary. “I have a library at home; well, it’s just some books, but it is not that big. I’m glad I get to add to it.”
Widnor said his favorite books are the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, popular children’s books by author Jeff Kinney.
United Way is helping to fund the program and has partnered with Scholastic Books Fairs, Lead to Read KC and Mayor Sly James’ Turn the Page KC program, which all share the mission of ensuring that every Kansas City child will read at grade level by third grade.
National research reported in 2010 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation said that students who are not reading proficiently at grade level by the end of third grade are at great risk of dropping out of high school. In 10 high-risk Kansas City schools today, only one in five third-grade students is reading at grade level, according to a release about the launch from the United Way of Greater Kansas City.
Other cities with My Very Own Library programs reported seeing students’ grade-level reading improve 7 to 17 percent year over year, United Way said.
Lead to Read and Turn the Page gather volunteers from across the city — parents, business and civic leaders — to volunteer and read to children in Kansas City schools.
My Very Own Library provides an additional level of encouragement for young readers in the Kansas City Public Schools, said Superintendent Mark Bedell.
“We believe all our partnerships propel us to a level of greatness I see in every one of you,” Bedell told the students. “You are beautiful, you are brilliant, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
In a call and response, Mayor James led the students in a pledge: “I’m going to be the best reader I can be.”
“When you can read, you can go anywhere,” the children shouted.
When you can read, James told the students, “you have nothing in your way. You can do anything you want to do.”
It’s exactly the attitude the late Anne Feeley wanted to cultivate when she founded My Very Own Library in 2011. It was first implemented in Newark, N.J. This year, the program expanded to the Dominican Republic and five other states including Missouri. A gift of $75,000 from the national Feeley Family and Friends Fund helped bring My Very Own Library to Kansas City.