Poverty, high dropout rates, and crime have long plagued Newark, N.J., typical of many post-industrial cities. But the people of Newark – with the help of a philanthropist – are working together to transform the city’s culture one child at a time through literacy.
The product of a public-private partnership, the city’s My Very Own Library (MVOL) project will end its second year of existence by enabling 12,000 Newark schoolchildren to receive 10 books each. The program, underwritten by the Foundation for Newark’s Future and by the late Anne Feeley, is part of a broader citywide initiative supported by Mayor Cory Booker. (Read more about Anne Feeley, our May Reading Hero, here.)
– Newark Mayor Cory Booker
“Crime is a symptom of a problem. It is not the problem itself,” Mayor Booker said in a speech. “More police can and will reduce crime, but ultimately we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We must educate our way out of it. . . . This is why we worked so hard to bring a program like My Very Own Library that will, by the end of this year, put hundreds of thousands of books into the new home libraries of nearly half of our district grade-school youth. You want to fight crime? Read to a child.”
Kimberly McLain, president and chief executive officer of the Foundation for Newark’s Future – which collaborates with city officials to improve education and student outcomes – believes a shift in citywide culture must begin with families. “We believe in the importance of family literacy, the opportunity for book ownership, and the power of families, communities, and schools engaged around a common goal – instilling a love of reading in our students. My Very Own Library is a carefully designed initiative that bridges the crucial school-to-home connection. We are proud to have been one of the leading funders for the past two years of such an impactful and innovative initiative.”
Newark’s students perform below their peers throughout New Jersey. In fact, “Newark has such a history of difficulty that it’s a state-run district,” shares Mark Valli, president and chief executive officer of New Jersey After 3, which manages the program.
New Jersey After 3 is a statewide network of evidence-based programs that partners with local community organizations and public schools to expand learning time by 40 percent each day. Scholastic Book Fairs® is the program’s book distribution partner, providing Book Fairs, family engagement activities, and parent resources to participating schools.
Shannon Boehmer, director of communications and corporate engagement and project manager for MVOL, says the timing of book distributions is very deliberate: one distribution before winter break, one before spring break on March 1 to correspond with Read Across America Day, and one just before summer break to help students avoid the summer slide. Children self-select three brand new books at each distribution. “At the final distribution on June 12, Scholastic will provide a selected summer reading book to each child,” Shannon says. “Scholastic Book Fairs’ involvement has been incredible. They have provided these MVOL-participating Newark Public Schools with an amazing assortment of high-quality books. They have also worked hard to make the distributions as easy as possible for the schools to implement – through their efficient delivery process and hands-on Book Fair support.”
Shannon says the program also has benefited through author visits made possible by Scholastic. “Such noted names as Dan Poblocki, Steve Metzger, Alan Katz, Michael Northrop, Gordon Korman, Sarah Mylnowski, Augusta Scattergood, Eliot Schrefer, Suzanne Weyn, and 2013 Coretta Scott King Award Winner Andrea Davis Pinkney have played an integral role in the concentrated efforts being made by the Foundation for Newark’s Future and NJ After 3 to engage families into the My Very Own Library initiative this school year,” she shares.
– New Jersey After 3 President and CEO Mark Valli
A majority of the 20 participating schools will have held a family night as part of the program by the end of the year, which Kevin Callaghan, Program Associate at the Foundation for Newark’s Future, a primary funder for the My Very Own Library Initiative, called a “critical first step. We had some really great reports about family nights. Some used Scholastic products, and others designed their own programs. It was key to leave it up to the schools to design their own programs so it was very decentralized, and schools really rose up to the challenge.”
Camden Street School is one of the schools benefitting from MVOL. “The principal has been very clear that his students are only performing at 18 percent proficiency – which means more than 80 percent of the students are well below their peers and not testing at proficient for their grade levels. Research shows that children who are reading at grade level by grade 3 are more likely to graduate,” Mark says.
Though no external evaluators have been used yet to measure the program’s success, anecdotal indications are encouraging. “Kevin and I have heard from teachers, parents, and students that students are reading these books multiple times at home and at school,” Mark says. “Kids are using the book distributions to challenge themselves, to pick more challenging books to explore more topics and issues. They’re taking advantage of this opportunity in all kinds of ways we couldn’t have predicted. Every student I’ve talked to shares the books with friends and brothers and sisters, so clearly there is a multiplier effect to MVOL.
“These are high-quality, brand-new books – popular titles – that these kids are getting,” he continues. “One student said, ‘These are real books.’ That’s a pretty powerful statement.”