Opportunities Abound When Books Are For Keeps

Six years ago, Melaney Smith met a little girl who wasn’t looking forward to summer because she had no books at home. Melaney’s desire to help led to the launch of Books for Keeps, a nonprofit that gives more than 50,000 books annually to children in Athens, Atlanta, and beyond. Books for Keeps is excited to partner with Get Georgia Reading, working to increase access to books for children in Georgia.

Books for Keeps’ main program is Stop Summer Slide!, a research-based effort that allows students from low-income families to self-select 12 books each year to take home just in time for summer. In 2011, the program’s first year, Books for Keeps served 1,000 students in three schools. Fewer than five years later, the organization is in 10 schools, serving 3,800 children, and making plans to expand to 15 additional schools in Athens, Atlanta, and rural Georgia counties in the next five years.

Our expansion plan is ambitious, but this fight is an important one. One survey found just one book for every 300 children living in high-poverty communities (Neuman & Celano, 2001). Unequal access to out-of-school learning opportunities can explain much of the achievement gap. Gains during the school year are nearly identical for students from low- and upper-income families; during the summer, however, children in low-income families are at risk of falling two to three months behind their peers (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007). By increasing their access to books during these critical summer months, we can help them stay on track to succeed.

In Athens, 38 percent of Athens children are living in poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2015). That’s compared with 27 percent of children statewide.

Yet, Athens is keeping pace with the rates of children reading proficiently in the state and in the nation. While those numbers are still far too low—only one-third of children in Athens and across Georgia are reading proficiently by the end of third grade—they are a testament to the work going on here in Athens to narrow the achievement gap.

Books for Keeps is part of that story. It’s as simple as giving children from low-income families access to books, at a cost of just $30 a child. While our program is research-based, we are also engaged in ongoing evaluation efforts, with the help of the schools we serve and researchers at the University of Georgia, to determine whether our program is having an effect. Early indicators say “yes!”

The achievement gap is a complex problem with many aggravating factors. There are no silver bullets. However, Books for Keeps has found early, initial success with our model. And it’s so simple. Let children from low-income families choose books they are excited about each year before summer. They should have the same opportunities as every other child.

Leslie Hale began work in June 2013 as the first executive director of Books for Keeps, after completing a Master of Public Administration from The University of Georgia. While earning her master’s degree, Leslie focused on public policy and nonprofit management, while working with the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities and Watkinsville-based Extra Special People