Hundreds of D.C. public schoolchildren packed into the gym at Walker-Jones Education Center on Thursday, eager to become first-time book owners.
The kids each got to take home three books for free — courtesy of the professional services company KPMG and First Book, a nonprofit literacy group.
“It’s like getting a new box of crayons,” said Julie Hursey, the Southeast school’s reading specialist. “There’s nothing more exciting than a brand-new book that belongs to you.”
Twelve District public schools participated in the book fair, where volunteers doled out 12,500 donated books to students, teachers and librarians as part of KPMG’s “Read to Succeed” initiative, which aims to promote literacy by providing lower-income families with easier access to reading materials.
The event was conducted as part of the National Education Association’s “Read Across America Day” — a nationwide reading celebration that takes place annually on March 2, the birthday of author Theodore Seuss Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss.
Walker-Jones Education Campus is a Title I school, meaning that the majority of its students come from lower-income families. There are 235 Title I schools across Maryland, Virginia and the District, where students often do not have access to libraries.
“Kids through the third grade are learning to read, and then they’re reading to learn,” said Diana Peacock, First Book’s senior vice president for development alliances. “Early childhood literacy is really the foundation for academic success.”
Children whose parents are functionally illiterate are at a disadvantage: Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health found that a mother’s reading skill level is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing factors such as community environment and family income.
Despite having a higher percentage of advanced degrees than any of the 50 states, the District also has a higher-than-average number of adults who are functionally illiterate, meaning they have difficulty with reading signs and filling out job applications, among other “tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”
“Our cities are struggling right now,” said First Book President and CEO Kyle Zimmer, who founded the organization in 1992. “Here we have a firm of highly skilled people and their families who are reaching across a tremendous divide to a part of the city that’s struggling and to families who are struggling. That’s the kind of knitting together of communities that’s going to make a real difference.”
Jerry Carlson, KPMG’s Washington-area managing partner, said the company and its volunteers deliver books to 20 Title I schools in the region every year.
He said that, for him, the impact of providing books for children who need them was captured by one Fairfax County school teacher’s story.
“I was walking out of the school one day, and she pointed at the backpacks on the wall,” he said. “She said, ‘See the bags? The students keep their books in their backpacks because they don’t want to lose them.’ It just tells you how special the books we give really are.”