Books Sweeter than Candy for Kids in Georgia

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Books for Keeps Aims to Stop Summer Slide

By Krystin Dean

For thousands of students in Georgia, Christmas comes early every year—in May, to be exact. That’s when Books for Keeps (BFK) sets up shop in school media centers with popular titles stacked on tables. Class by class, students enter the “pop-up bookstore” and choose 12 books for free to keep through the summer and beyond.

“A lot of students tell us it’s their favorite day of the year,” said BFK Executive Director Leslie Hale. “They say it’s just like Christmas, except better, because they get to pick out exactly what they want. Picture a kid in a candy shop—but that level of excitement about books.”

BFK’s Stop Summer Slide! program is a research-based effort to end summer learning loss—the tendency for students, especially those from low-income families, to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year.

For 11 months of the year, BFK’s three-person team collects, inspects, sorts, and boxes books to give them all away each May. Since 2009, BFK has provided more than 260,000 books to children from low-income families in grades Pre-K through 12.

Many children cannot—or do not—access their public libraries for reasons related to geography, transportation, or something as simple as an inability to pay fines for lost books. By middle school, the children from these families may be three grade-levels behind their peers. That gap is nearly insurmountable, and negatively affects their chances of graduating from high school.

BFK is building on a strong foundation of research to evaluate the program’s success, using testing data from the schools that are served and with the help of researchers at the University of Georgia. Their strategy is based on a study that revealed having access to books over the summer has a similar impact to attending summer school, but at a fraction of the cost.

“We model what we do and how we do it off of a three-year study that says this is a successful strategy,” said Hale. “Early on in the program, that was a constant question: How do you know it’s actually working? But we do have research that shows that students in our program are advancing one to two months in their reading level during the summer.”

BFK started in 2009 as a grassroots effort after Melaney Smith talked to a second-grader from Alps Road Elementary School in Athens who was disappointed that summer break was approaching—because when school ended, so did her access to books. Smith quickly rallied friends and family to provide books to 80 students from the school.

Smith used social media in 2010 to encourage people across the United States and Canada to mail used books to Athens, and provided books to every student at Alps Road Elementary. By 2015, the program’s Board of Directors made the decision to grow BFK into a statewide organization.

BFK intends to serve every child attending an Athens-Clarke County elementary school, plus five new schools in Atlanta and three new schools in rural Georgia counties—bringing their reach to 22 elementary schools. This spring alone, BFK distributed 95,000 books to 8,000 students at 18 elementary schools in four Georgia counties.

“People often assume that we have federal or state funding, but it’s the small and mid-sized donations that make up the bulk of our fundraising and allow us to go out and purchase the books that we need to give away to students,” said Hale, who noted that it costs an average of $15,000 to underwrite a single elementary school.

Because of a generous gift of $3,000 to the Get Georgia Reading Campaign through a partnership between Peter Millar and Coaching for Literacy, a nonprofit organization that focuses on improving education to increase literacy and odds for future success, BFK distributed nearly 1,000 books at Dunbar Elementary—the first Atlanta school added to BFK’s list in 2014.

“The vast majority of our schools are funded by cobbling together $1,000 here, $5,000 there, to get all the funding that’s needed,” said Hale. “So a $3,000 donation goes a long way toward reaching 80 students at that school.”

A BFK distribution day is different than a visit to the library or book fair, because the book selection process is completely driven by the student’s interests and comfort level. According to Hale, this creates a sense of ownership and self-determination for each child.

“Part of our philosophy is that by giving kids control over what they read, we’re helping infuse a sense of joy and excitement back into reading that can sometimes get lost,” said Hale. “And we’re building connections so that when they come back to school in the fall, they carry that excitement back with them.”

BFK aims for books to be shared in the home—whether it’s a cookbook that a child looks forward to using with a parent or grandparent, or a story to share with younger siblings—to build cross-generational connections that inspire families to read together.

“While I was helping students check out their books at Dunbar, I noticed that almost every child chose books to give to a brother or sister who wasn’t there,” said Get Georgia Reading Campaign Project Manager Akia Lewis. “That speaks volumes to the hearts and generosity of our children, and their desire to give back—despite their own circumstances.”

For information on how to get involved with Books for Keeps, send an email to [email protected] or call 706-410-1912. Books for Keeps also has a great need for new or gently used books for children and young adults in Pre-K through 12th grade, and accepts books of any kind, for children or adults. You can send books to:

Books for Keeps
c/o Melanie Bradford
1050 Long Creek Drive
Bogart, GA  30622