- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Washington lawyer Kyle Zimmer was volunteering to help disadvantaged children at Martha’s Table back in 1992 when she realized there was little chance for the youngsters to practice and reinforce their literacy skills.

“I recognized that these kids didn’t have any books to go around,” Ms. Zimmer says. “I was struck by that. I grew up with ordinary means, but along with that came trips to the library. Books make an extraordinary difference.”

From that experience, First Book was born. First Book (www.firstbook.org) is a nonprofit that has put more than 60 million books in the hands of low-income children since its founding in 1992. Ms. Zimmer eventually left law to be president of the organization.

A look at the statistics shows First Book is a much-needed concept. Studies by Susan B. Neuman, professor of education at the University of Michigan and a former Bush administration assistant secretary of education, show that in low-income neighborhoods, there is an average of one book for every 300 children. In middle-income neighborhoods, there is an average of 13 books for every child. Ms. Neuman’s studies also have found that 80 percent of preschools and after-school programs serving low-income populations have no age-appropriate books for their children.

Access to books can have a critical impact on the future of low-income children. Ms. Neuman’s studies of 100,000 school-age children nationwide found that access to books - and not poverty - is the critical variable affecting learning to read.

Ms. Zimmer says improving literacy can dramatically improve the future for a whole family.

“The most hopeful thing about literacy and education is once you fix it for one family, you have fixed the family tree [for literacy],” she says. “Once they are literate, they will always be literate. If we bring people across that bridge, we can fix it forever.”

First Book says it is national in scope but local in impact. It works on the local level, as there are 280 national advisory boards - local groups of volunteers who work with organizations such as schools, Head Start programs and after-school programs to obtain book grants from First Book.

Those groups can choose from more than 9,000 titles. Most groups are in the book-a-month program, through which they can get many copies of the same book for an entire class or group. The students read the books together but then can take them home to keep and add to their home libraries.

First Book also works with publishers to add to its First Book National Book Bank and First Book Marketplace. The book bank is a centralized distribution system moving large numbers of books from publishers to reading programs. The marketplace, which started three years ago, is an online retail site for organizations and schools with high low-income populations to buy books at a deep discount.

By dealing directly with publishers and with such a high volume, First Book is able to give those groups exponentially more, Ms. Zimmer says.

“For every $1 spent, $10 in retail value goes out,” she says. “The economy of scale really allows us to stretch the money.”

Increased access to books is needed today more than ever, Ms. Zimmer says. In many inner-city communities, libraries are experiencing budget cuts, and some schools have inadequate or outdated textbooks in addition to not having enough basic literature.

“It is a misconception that schools have adequate access to books,” Ms. Zimmer says. “Some of the places we go would make you cry. One woman working with schools in the area hit by Hurricane Katrina said the middle school history books that had been destroyed were close to 50 years old.”

Frances Evangelista is a library media specialist at Scott Montgomery Elementary School in the Shaw area of the District. She says books from First Book have made a huge difference for the mostly low-income students at her school.

“There are a lot of great organizations out there that benefit children in high-poverty schools,” Ms. Evangelista says. “First Book is hands-down the best at placing great books in the hands of needy children.”

Scott Montgomery Elementary will host a Family Reading Night on Wednesday. Students will be able to pick up new books for their home libraries. At the Family Reading Night in the spring, more than 300 participants left with reading bags and seven to 10 new books each, Ms. Evangelista says.

“First Book understands something much more significant than the simple fact that children living in poverty might not have books in their home,” she says. “They understand that those of us working in urban education are trying to build a culture of readers - reading as fun, reading as automatic rather than mandated by a homework assignment. Every child can learn, every child can succeed.”

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