November 23, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Partnerships Promote Culture of Reading in Texas

Families await their turn for the bookmobile in Houston, TX.

Families await their turn for the bookmobile in Houston, TX.

Books were not the first thing on the minds of the students as they filed into their school library. The new iPads were the major attraction, but librarian Elizabeth Awani-Holmes worried it would take more than the latest technology to make her students embrace the culture of reading.

It is widely accepted that reading is the foundational skill for academic success in all content areas. Canadian researchers found that in addition to laying the groundwork for better cognitive function and improved academic performance, readers enjoy increased health benefits, enhanced economic potential, and engagement in more extensive educational pursuits. Given all of that, creating a culture of reading is of critical importance.

Awani-Holmes was eager to create just that at the two elementary schools where she works in the Houston Independent School District (HISD).  Reading was, far and away, her favorite activity.  Her own children were avid readers, and she desired the same for her students. To her dismay, though, her students were not motivated by a print book.

Demographic Challenges

Awani-Holmes spent 18 years employed at some of the more affluent areas of Houston. Her return to the East Little York/Homestead area, the first she worked in when she started her career in education, was eye opening. While many of Houston’s schools had seen considerable improvement during that time, the ones in this largely minority neighborhood were stagnant.

According to 2012 U.S. census data of the 19,610 residents, 44 percent were unemployed, 28 percent had not received a high school diploma, and the median income was $35,198. Reading achievement fell far short of both state and district averages, with third grade reading scores averaging 40 out of 100; fourth grade, 30; and fifth grade, 55.

Awani-Holmes was aware of those hurdles—as well as others, such as high drop-out rates and the fact that many grandparents served as guardians in the area—which her students faced on a regular basis. She also knew that while students in low-income districts may have the same in-school resources as those elsewhere, they often do not have the same reading experiences. Children in more affluent families usually enjoy more lap-time and bedtime reading, a bigger personal library, reader role models, and regular attendance at public-library programs.

A three-pronged approach

Awani-Holmes sought help from grant coordinator Gloria Dennis and library services specialist Janice Newsum. It was decided to tackle the problem using a trio of tactics:

1) Incentivize reading in general

2) Build up children’s home libraries

3) Somehow make reading throughout the summer easier and hence reduce the effect of the summer slide.  Research indicates that the progress of low-income children in both math and reading made during the academic school year shows a one-month cumulative loss over the summer.

Awani-Holmes knew it was not enough that the seven schools in the area received the U. S. Department of Education Innovative Approaches to Literacy  grant. While that provided funds, her students would need the full benefit of her specialized training as a school librarian to change the reading culture.

Partners make it happen

If it really does take a village to raise a child, then including business and community partners in that support network makes perfect sense. The commitment of business to the literacy of its future customers and employees is a win-win.  However, cultivating such partnerships require a consistent effort on the part of the school librarian.

That effort was demonstrated as the trio implemented the first tactic, incentivizing reading. Extensive research revealed national and regional chains with local reading incentives that would be easy to implement—and just as importantly, entice the kids. Two of the most popular were the Pizza Hut Book It program, which provides free one-topping personal pizzas for documented reading, and the Chuck E. Cheese promotion, giving 10 free tokens for reading over a two-week period.  Summer reading programs run by HEB grocery stores, Barnes and Noble, and Half Price Books, along with the Houston Public Library and the HISD Every Summer has a Story programs, were also well-received. Dennis used a digital curation tool, Pearltrees, to organize and share all the reading incentive program options.

Local celeb steps in

The literacy foundation Castro’s Kids, under the direction of the Houston Astros’s catcher, Jason Castro, and his wife, Maris, supplied each child with five new, age-appropriate books for their home collections.  (Five is the minimum number required to participate in Every Summer has a Story.) Castro’s Kids continued their partnership with HISD by donating books to 15 campuses for monthly “birthday book” programs.

Taking it to the children

The last tactic, but certainly not the least, to be implemented was making summer reading easier. Collaboration between the HISD transportation department and library services resulted in a wonderful rolling library that brought the library experience to the students. This district bookmobile visited the area community centers and parks during the summer.  Thanks to surrounding publicity, local book vendors stocked it. Flyers were sent to each school in the district announcing dates and locations.  Students were able to check out two books at a time. The program proved to be a success, with grandparents bringing their grandchildren to check out books!

Awani-Holmes envisioned eager readers, growing not only academically, but also in their attitudes toward reading. Creating the partnerships that put reading front and center for the students took the work of many hands, but is proving to be well worth the effort.


Elizabeth Awani-Holmes is the librarian at B. C. Elmore and A. G. Hilliard Elementary Schools in the Houston Independent School District.
Gloria Dennis is the project manager for the Project Reality grant in the Houston Independent School District.
Janice Newsum is a library services specialist in the Houston Independent School District.

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