CHARLESTON, W.Va.—To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the partnership between the American Federation of Teachers and the nonprofit First Book, which started with a small donation of books at a Charleston, W.Va., school and has spread exponentially, the groups today distributed thousands of free books, school supplies and personal care items to three Charleston schools.
They also announced a nationwide grant program for AFT locals to help implement innovative programs and enable educators to select books and educational resources from First Book that meet the specific needs and interests of the students they serve.
First Book furthers educational equity by providing high-quality, brand-new books (at low cost or free), basic-needs items and educational resources to classrooms and programs serving children in need, from birth to age 18, in order to remove barriers to quality education for all kids.
“The AFT-First Book partnership represents our commitment to educators, families and students in need nationwide and our enduring alliance with West Virginia. Our goal is to help create healthy, safe and welcoming learning environments where students can thrive. This is the power of our partnership, and it is needed now more than ever to help get all children back in the classroom safely and restore the joy of learning after the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.
The AFT is no stranger to West Virginia, having spearheaded the decadelong work of Reconnecting McDowell, a public-private partnership in McDowell County. It is a model that demonstrates how to recommit to communities with educational supports, social and emotional programs and services, and economic development. That project continues, most recently with the opening of Renaissance Village, the first multiple-story construction in Welch, W.Va., in more than 50 years—an apartment building intended for teachers and other professionals who need modern housing near McDowell schools and other jobs.
“Reading is the key to unlocking opportunity for youngsters, but you have to have the books. This isn’t just about helping kids learn to read and comprehend but also about creating the opportunity for the love and joy of reading and learning,” Weingarten said. “Wealthy families take home libraries for granted. We believe all children should have books of their own, and schools and classrooms should have a variety of books to open kids’ minds and imagination.”
The first AFT-First Book event was held in 2011 at West Side Elementary School, now called Mary C. Snow Elementary West Side, which is where Thursday’s event took place. The groups commemorated the 10-year partnership by distributing 3,000 books and creating a “care closet” of school supplies and personal care items at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary. A similar donation will be made to Edgewood Elementary and West Side Middle schools.
Over the past 10 years, the partnership has distributed 60,500 books and other resources to West Virginia schools, literacy centers and students. Nationwide, the AFT and First Book have distributed 7.5 million books, basic-needs items, school supplies, and educational resources on topics ranging from social and emotional learning to supporting children who have experienced trauma.
“We share the AFT’s belief that education opens the door for children to reach their full potential, but schools and programs in under-served communities too often lack the resources they need,” said First Book President, CEO and co-founder Kyle Zimmer.
She said a recent First Book survey found that 98 percent of educators responding reported spending their personal money for books and supplies. “This isn’t fair and it isn’t right. Together, we are working to change that.”
Zimmer added: “This collaboration has transformed our ability to support educators and students, enhance educational equality and help students reach their full potential. The impact of our actions now to support educational equity will reverberate throughout our communities for decades to come.”
To mark the start of the new school year, the groups announced a new national grant program—the AFT-First Book 10th Anniversary Reimagining Public Education grants. AFT locals across the country can apply for grants to implement innovative programs using books and other resources from First Book to support healthy, safe and welcoming in-person learning environments for students and educators during the 2021-22 school year. Grants will range from $500 to $5,000. The AFT is contributing $30,000.
These grants are in addition to the AFT’s $5 million Back to School for All grants to help AFT locals’ efforts to ensure a safe and welcoming new school year.
The Reimagining Public Education grants will fuel educators’ creative ideas for how best to use resources from First Book to support their students and further educational opportunities.
Through the AFT-First Book partnership, AFT locals have used First Book’s Stories for All ProjectTM collection to build classroom libraries featuring diverse and inclusive books. During COVID-19, educators distributed millions of books. For children living in “book deserts,” these are among the first books that some children can call their own.
In addition, educators have distributed First Book books at food distribution sites; packed backpacks with supplies to send home with students; held book fairs to support summer reading and lessen summer learning loss; and used books to further empathy and understanding among students of different ethnicities, religions and backgrounds. The AFT and First Book have also worked together and with other groups to distribute blankets, books and basic-needs items as part of disaster relief efforts in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.