First Book and AFT distribute books to needy students

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In places where children have very little, books are a luxury. That's why, when the AFT gives out free books, kids are incredulous. "Can we really take them home?" they ask. "We don't have to leave them at school?"

First Book at Crumly Chapel ESStudents in Alabama are delighted with free books from AFT and First Book. Photo by Jeff Roberts.

Across the country, AFT members are partnering with First Book to distribute books to disadvantaged children—and explaining to them that yes, in fact, they can take the books home to share with their families.

"Some of the kids were absolutely overwhelmed," says Vi Parramore, president of the Jefferson County AFT, recalling a distribution celebration at Crumly Chapel Elementary School in Jefferson County, Ala. "They'd never had books like that. One little girl was coming to get pizza, and she would not even leave her book—she made me hold it for her until she could get her pizza and ice cream."

"I tell you what, I just wanted to cry."

Similar scenarios are being played out at more than a dozen locations throughout the United States, as the AFT has begun several pilot projects with First Book, a nonprofit organization that distributes books to children from low-income families. Statistics show that among disadvantaged children, the average number of books in the home is only one book for every 300 children. In the 20 years since it began, First Book has worked to address that deficit, distributing 90 million books and working with 90 different publishers who donate and discount the books. Children can take the books home, and schools can fortify their libraries and classrooms with high-quality titles, including Caldecott and Newbery winners, for all age groups.

Fran Lawrence First BookA Cincinnati student shows AFT executive vice president Fran Lawrence his new book. Photo by Bruce Crippen.

Earlier this year, AFT president Randi Weingarten, who initiated the collaboration with First Book, held an informational webinar for AFT affiliates, along with First Book, to recruit locals to run pilot programs in their districts. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers helped distribute a half-million books in April, including 80,000 that went to their own students. (See related story.) Last week, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers distributed thousands of books to students enrolled in its summer learning program; the Cleveland Teachers Union distributed anti-bullying books to every K-2 student at Memorial K-8 School; and the Birmingham Federation of Teachers and the Jefferson County AFT in Alabama distributed books to replace those lost in the tornadoes that recently devastated the area.

Other projects include next week's book distribution to nearly 1,000 students at Crestwood Elementary School in Tampa, Fla., along with a library makeover project to promote healthy lifestyles, and upcoming distributions in Central Florida, Connecticut and Oregon. Several locals are sponsoring drives to register teachers with First Book so they can order free or reduced-cost (averaging $2.50 each) books for their classrooms.

The impact of these distributions is profound. First Book research shows that book ownership increases educational opportunities at school and, most important, improves interest in reading, desire to learn and reading time at home. "We know that having books of their own at home is so important for instilling the love of reading that starts children on the path of lifelong learning," said AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence, who attended the Cincinnati book distribution. "Kids won't become readers if they don't have books. By working with First Book, we can level the playing field so that all kids can have books of their own."

To register for First Book, go to www.firstbook.org/aft. [Virginia Myers, Tom Lansworth, Leslie Getzinger]

May 25, 2012