As part of the 21st annual Year of the Book grant, 10 schools in Vermont and New Hampshire received $25,000 in money and resources from the Children’s Literacy Foundation, including Castleton Elementary School and Morristown Elementary School.
CLiF Executive Director Duncan McDougall said the ideal recipients of the grant are schools with a significant number of students receiving free and reduced lunch and low proficiency scores in reading and writing.
“We’re looking for the need,” McDougall said. “We’re also looking for schools with significant enthusiasm, who will make the best use of the support we provide.”
Since its inception, the grant has helped 60 elementary schools and provided more than $1.5 million in literacy support, all through private donations, McDougall said.
“In 2018, we will have held almost 1,000 literacy events in 160 communities across the twin states,” McDougall said. “We decided if we wanted to make a significant impact on a child’s interest in reading and writing, we needed to work with them over an extended period of time and provide a wide range of high-quality and inspiring experiences.”
And, at halfway through their grant period, the schools are taking advantage of the money.
At Castleton Elementary, the grant committee is headed by librarian Tina Rampone, who said she noticed delayed literacy in children becoming more common in an age where family time is impacted by electronic devices and demanding work schedules.
“Having libraries and books available is vitally important,” Rampone said. “... We need to get them reading. For some, it may mean a graphic novel. For others, something as simple as a magazine.”
In addition to free writing workshops and 10 free books distributed to each student as part of the grant, Castleton Elementary won an ice cream social and Family Fun night from CLiF because they received more than 80 percent of their “Read to Me” contracts back from families, assuring the school that they would make an effort to read with their children at least twice a week.
“It breaks my heart when the kindergartners bring their books back in and say ‘no one will read to me,’” Rampone said. “This is a wealth of opportunity for all of our children, being exposed to authors.”
At Morristown Elementary, school staffers and one fourth-grade student decided to transform the kindergarten-through-fourth-grade school into their own fleet of superheroes, said art teacher Kim Lucia, who also teaches at Eden Elementary School, another Year of the Book grant recipient.
“We came up with the theme ‘super readers, super writers and super artists,’” Lucia said. “We focused on art and literacy together.”
Lucia said the school decided to focus on comic books and graphic novels, and used a portion of the $2,000 in “school dollars” — cash that schools can use as they see fit — from the grant money to create superhero capes for the 272 students who created their own superhero alter-egos to match their costume.
“They were so excited,” Lucia said. “To be a superhero as a kid? Who wouldn’t want that?”
At the end of the 2019 school year, Morristown Elementary will hold its own Comic Con, with each of the students donning their unique costume for their Year of the Book yearbook, which Lucia said they hope to create with a new book-binding machine also purchased with CLiF grant funds.
The grant funds also supplied several thousand in mini-grants and $2,000 toward books for each school, which was split between Castleton Elementary and the Castleton Public Library.
Morristown split the money into $500 increments for each grade to spend on new library books.
“These are high-quality, hardcover books that you want kids reading,” Lucia said. “They’re rich in language... The kids get really excited.”
Also, the students received visits from authors and illustrators, and Morristown invited Vermont authors Linda Urban, author of “A Crooked Kind of Perfect,” and David Martin of “We’ve All Got Belly Buttons” fame. Author and illustrator Marty Kelley, with comic creator Marek Bennet, taught a comic lesson to the fourth-grade classes in the spring.
“Marty talked a lot about making mistakes and not being boring,” Lucia said. “He talked about how he had to persevere through challenges and re-do his work ... it really gives students the message — even professionals aren’t perfect the first time.”
Rampone said they chose to host Ted Scheu, who taught a three-day poetry-writing workshop for the fourth and fifth grades; a presentation by Vermont author and illustrator Phoebe Stone; a Family Literacy Night on Dec. 6, with presentations from Rutland author Doug Wilhelm; and are looking forward to the arrival of Vermont author Jason Chin, who will speak in February about writing nonfiction and scientific picture books.
The grant provides $1,000 to taper the schools off of this year’s gift, Lucia said.
“It’s the escape,” Rampone said. “We need that ... to get into a book and go somewhere else for awhile.”