two teenage kids reading next to each other in a field

Books for Baltimore: Impacting the Achievement Gap

The following is a guest blog post written by educators Loretta Holmberg and Ann Mengel, VIPTeach Global Online Teaching Fellows, First Book network educators, and leaders of the Books for Baltimore project.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of children have not been in physical classrooms with access to trade books at school. Recognizing the importance of access to physical books for early elementary school students, two experienced Maryland educators have teamed up to bring First Book resources to underserved students through the Books for Baltimore project. Loretta Holmberg and Ann Mengel met as part of the inaugural cohort of VIPTeach Global Online Teaching Fellows, a program for leaders committed to First Book’s mission to expand access to quality education for children in need.

The Challenge

The formative years of early elementary school are when children learn how a book works — turning the pages from right to left, reading the sentences from left to right, doing a return sweep when they come to the end of the line, and observing illustrations closely as they read. These skills are better known as concepts about print. While electronic or digital books do provide some of these skills, there is something to be said about being able to physically touch the paper of a book. When children can see a book they own, in plain sight and not on a device, they are more likely to pick it up to read it!

Impacting the achievement gap

Research studies have shown that students from economically impacted families tend to not have access to physical story books unless they are in their classrooms at school. Closures due to the pandemic combined with lack of access to books during the summer break can result in a reading achievement gap for children from disadvantaged communities.

Engagement in reading activities and access to books can help reduce the reading achievement gap. Students who have books at home are more likely to succeed academically. Researchers believe this is because having books at home encourages children to read for fun and talk to their parents about what they have learned, which also stands to benefit them in the classroom. The Books for Baltimore project was born out of the need to overcome barriers to accessing books for underserved young learners.

About the Program

As part of their program, VIPTeach Fellows participate in a Spring Semester Capstone Project, the culminating professional learning and service experience of the one-year Fellowship program. For the capstone, fellows partner with public sector and nonprofit education organizations on initiatives to promote educational equity. Loretta stated, “When I thought about what I would like to do for my capstone project as a Fellow for VIPTeach, Books for Baltimore came to mind almost immediately. I hope to distribute at least two books each to 518 students in four schools, complete with the read-aloud recordings of these books to help with reading engagement and to provide summer enrichment.” She reached out to University of Maryland Baltimore who then connected her to the four Baltimore City Public Schools. Loretta is very excited about the Books for Baltimore project. She has started to record the read-aloud of the books that she has ordered from First Book.

Loretta and Ann’s passion for education

Loretta has been an elementary educator and reading specialist for the last 19 years teaching in rural schools in Pennsylvania and later in Baltimore City schools. She understands the need for students to have access to their own books. In recent years, she has been a university faculty in the School of Education at Loyola University Maryland working with preservice teachers as well as teachers obtaining their master’s degree in a reading specialist program. As VIPTeach Fellows, both Loretta and Ann also teach English in real-time virtually to classrooms of students who live in rural China through the VIPKid Rural Education Project.

Loretta and Ann are looking forward to working on the Books for Baltimore project together. Ann said, “When Loretta was presenting her idea for the capstone project to partner with First Book, University of Maryland Baltimore, and Baltimore City Public Schools, I knew immediately that I wanted to collaborate and assist with this project.”

As a seasoned educator of 26 years, Ann has worked in six Title 1 schools across Maryland as an elementary teacher and media specialist. She also volunteers as an online reading tutor with Prince George’s County Public Schools.

“Working in schools with high populations of Black and Hispanic students has helped me to select educational materials that celebrate a student’s identity, race, and culture in positive ways. It is important to provide students with high interest books that emphasize a diverse population or with characters and topics that students can identify with and relate to. The First Book Marketplace offers a great variety of books reflecting these ideas at a reasonable cost. This helps us provide a variety of books to more students. I look forward to collaborating with Loretta in this project by assisting with book selections and recording read-alouds for students,” Ann stated.

About VIPTeach

VIPTeach is a U.S. 501(c)(3) public charity that empowers educators with technology and

professional learning to drive innovation and equity in education. VIPTeach gives education leaders support, skills, and opportunities to break down barriers that prevent many children from accessing quality education through programs such as the Global Online Teaching Fellowship. VIPTeach is founded by Cindy Mi, a former teacher and Founder and CEO of VIPKid, a leading global education technology company.

Join the Network

Educators can join First Book’s network — the largest and fastest-growing network of educators, schools, and programs serving children in need across the United States and Canada — to bring brand-new affordable titles to your classroom.

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