St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas, recently donated 1,200 books to the first grade class at Menchaca Elementary School in the hopes of preventing the typical "summer slide" in reading comprehension. Each of the 106 first graders received 12 books donated by the parish.
St. Alban's rector, the Rev. Margaret Waters, came up with the idea for the project after reading an article in the New York Times. The story reported on a University of Tennessee study that gave 12 books to more than 800 students for three straight summers until the children reached fourth or fifth grade. The study found that students who received books tested higher than those who did not, and the results among poor children were the most dramatic.
Since St. Alban's was already mentoring children at Menchaca Elementary, a school with a high number of disadvantaged students, the church decided to implement the same program in Austin.
"We took the idea to our outreach commission, and they just thought it was the grandest idea," said outreach coordinator Jill Binder.
Earlier this year, St. Alban's began fundraising for the books. They received a $1,500 grant from the Diocese of Texas, and held a chili cook-off with the principal of Menchaca Elementary, raising an additional $500.
At the end of 2010, the church set up an Amazon.com online store, where six percent of every purchase through the site would benefit St. Alban's. In just a few months, they had raised $800. And with the assistance of a Menchaca librarian, St. Alban's teamed with Scholastic Book Fairs, which offered to give one book free to each student.
"We ended up with enough money to buy the books with $200 left to start with next year," Binder said.
St. Alban's also bought each student a canvas book bag, and St. Alban's parishioner Susan Saxon personalized the bags by embroidering each child's name.
At the end of May, each student in the first grade class of Menchaca was allowed to select two at the book fair. The remaining 10 books were selected by the first grade teachers, who feared the chaos of allowing the students to select all 12 for themselves.
"The teachers are so excited that the children have these books," Waters said. "But the unexpected joy for me was the children witnessing the joy we had in this act of radical generosity. The children wanted to get in on the generosity. It was not just a feeling of 'isn't it cool to have all these books.' They also felt 'isn't it cool to be able to give something really big away.'"
In each book bag, St. Alban's placed a letter from Waters and the school principal about the church's donation. At the presentation of the books, Waters encouraged the students to read to their friends and family over the summer.
"Some of the children raised their hands and wanted to tell her who they were going to read to over the summer," Binder said. "The teachers did a great job, and the children were so polite."
Following the donation, St. Alban's received thank-you letters from the children, and one mother left a voicemail thanking St. Alban's and explaining that her daughter wasn't able to purchase any books at the normal book fair because the family couldn't afford them.
"Thank you so much for the books," read one note. "How did you uford (sic) all that money?"
"My mom will be proud," wrote another child. "That was very sweet. Good job. You are the nicest people. I want to do something as nice as all of you."
St. Alban's plans to continue and possibly expand this project next year. The second grade teachers have already committed to report on how much the gifts stemmed the usual summer slide in reading comprehension.
"We are really trying to give these kids every advantage," Waters said. "Hopefully they will get a leg up that they wouldn't have had otherwise."