Filling the Gaps

Closing the chasm between what our students have and what they deserve is immense work. For 500 children living in poverty, that chasm closed a little bit today, thanks to a spectacular book fair that didn’t cost the kids a dime.

This week Scholastic delivered 10,500 books to our school for the first book fair of its kind. Two things make this book fair different from most:

  • The kids don’t have to pay for the books.
  • The book fair is tied into six family literacy nights planned by every grade level, kindergarten through fifth grade.

Every child in every class gets to choose five books to add to their home libraries, and the children who come with their parents to a family literacy night get four additional books to take home and keep. 98% of our students live in poverty, so providing the books free of charge makes a huge difference in the number of books going into children’s hands and homes.

Today at our book fair, I saw Jasper—a little guy from the Marshall Islands who wears comically big glasses—moping around as the other students chose their books. I asked him why he wasn’t picking out any books and he said in a forlorn voice, “I don’t have a dollar.”

When I explained that this book fair is different, he doesn’t need money to pick out books, he grinned and set out to make his selections.

Angela held up a book and told me, “I picked this one for my brother.”

On our way back to class, Sala said, “When I get home, I’m going to teach my little brother to read.”

 

The Many Gaps that Cause the Achievement Gap

When we talk about closing the achievement gap, we usually focus on the obvious markers of inequity: ensuring that students in high-poverty schools have competent teachers, sufficient resources, and adequate test scores.

But the opportunity gap between children who live in poverty and those who live in affluence is immense. That gap encompasses everything from health care to food security, the chance to visit museums to the number of books in the home, even the number of years a child is likely to live.

On Friday, there was a shooting in the apartment complex that borders our playground. We spent the day on partial lockdown, which meant no students could go out for recess, and we had to draw our blinds to block the crime scene in plain sight across the parking lot.

There’s an insidious narrative that blames public schools for poverty. It’s undoubtedly true that most poor children don’t get the schools they deserve, but that has more to do with inequitable funding and bad policy than it does with any failure on the part of the people who serve those children.

Remarkable things are happening in high-poverty schools all over the country, led by educators who have chosen to make less money in order to teach children with greater needs. Faced with systemic problems like wage inequality, abysmal health coverage, and gun violence, teachers and principals across the country devote their days and years to making things better for the children and families they serve.

Our school closes the gaps that separate our students from more affluent students in all kinds of ways, most of which wouldn’t be necessary in a nation that truly valued all children.

We feed them breakfast and lunch, and send home food on the weekends for the kids who won’t get enough to eat otherwise. We provide health care in a clinic housed in our school.

Teachers in our school have paid families’ utility bills to help them avoid eviction. Counselors have bought new clothes for abused children when they have to testify in court, to make the wrenching experience of seeing their abuser in the courtroom a little less miserable. One of our teachers became a father when he adopted a student who had nowhere else to go.

None of this should be necessary. Children in the wealthiest nation on the planet should have enough to eat, a skilled doctor when they need one, and the security of a permanent home.

But the students in our care, despite all the obstacles in their lives, fill their moments with curiosity and delight. They get excited over shark tooth necklaces and books about Lego Ninjas. They’re drawn to stories about neglected kittens, fierce ice princesses, and bloody battles between Komodo dragons and Bengal tigers.

Today they had one more opportunity that is often reserved for middle-class children: the chance to wander through a dizzying array of books, then take home the stories that call to them most powerfully.

The gaps between what our children have and what they deserve remain vast. But the book gap closed on this first day of our book fair, and five hundred children’s lives got a little bit better as a result.

*Note: For more about the home library project and how it grew from 25 students to 2,500 students, read The Home Library Effect and Taking Teacher-Led Projects to Scale.

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