Crystal James loves Greenwood Elementary School.
The fifth grade teacher calls the school “a gem,” and in the three years she’s been there, she has dedicated her time both in and out of the classroom to bettering the lives of its students. One way she does that is through Donors Choose, an organization that connects teachers in high-need communities with donors who want to help fund projects or other school-related purchases. Greenwood is a Title I school, which means because of the socioeconomic level of the families it serves, the school receives additional funding from the state for staff and programming. Eighty-five percent of the school’s students receive free or reduced lunches. Many belong to the school’s breakfast program, which provides a morning meal to students who might not otherwise have one.
For James’s classroom, donors have funded the purchase of calculators, a speaker and microphone system, science magazines, classroom supplies. Sometimes it takes a few weeks or a month for a project to reach full funding. But James had become known around Greenwood Elementary for her ability to get things done, to find alternative ways to provide essential materials and interesting programs for her students.
So it made sense when Greenwood principal Nicole Dickens-Simon and Robyn Ivanisik, the school’s climate and culture specialist, approached James about funding a new project through Donors Choose: a new, outdoor Little FreeLibrary for the school and its community.
A Little Free Library is a structure, usually outdoors along a sidewalk or outside of a building, that contains books for the community to borrow or take for free. Community members are encouraged to add their own books for others, too.
Greenwood already had a Little Free Library inside the school, but this new project had the potential to promote literacy and community outside the school’s walls. At home, only 63 percent of Greenwood’s students speak English as a first language, according to the school’s state School Performance Report. More than a quarter come from Spanish-speaking families, and nearly 7 percent speak French Creole.
James was immediately drawn to the idea, hoping it could provide access to reading materials to families who previously didn’t have one.
“I thought it was an awesome idea because the Hamilton Township Library is so far from here,” James said. “A lot of the kids and their parents can’t get to that side of town. We figured if it’s out here, they have easy access, especially on breaks, holidays, all summer long. We just wanted to have a place where these kids can read, because they read all the time. They love books. Even though technology has taken over, these kids want a book in their hand. I talked to my kids, and they were all excited.”
James posted on Donors Choose about bringing a Little Free Library to Greenwood on Jan. 22. She looked at the nearly $600 total cost and thought it might take a few months to fund. By Jan. 26, the project had been fully funded.
James admits she was a little shocked, although thrilled. Donors came from all over the country, and the fundraiser circulated locally on social media.
“It lets us know that we’re thought about,” she said. “We’re on the edge of Hamilton Township. A lot of times, you could feel left out. That lets us all know that Greenwood is thought about, and that we are important. That’s what we like to instill in our kids here, that you can make a difference. Greenwood is a gem. I love what I do.”
Greenwood’s Little Free Library was installed in front of the school a few weeks later, and officially opened March 15 during a dedication ceremony that drew luminaries, such as Mayor Kelly Yaede and Superintendent of Schools Scott Rocco, and community members alike.
“It takes reading to another dimension, and it also establishes Greenwood as a place where literacy is extremely important,” Dickens-Simon said. “Of course, we always want test scores to increase. We always want reading and math scores to improve. But at this moment, developing a love of reading, a love of learning, that’s why we’re here.”
Greenwood is considered a “community school,” meaning no students are bused—they all live within walking distance. The hope of Dickens-Simon, Ivanisik and James is that students and their families will utilize the Little Free Library during the summer and outside of school hours, stopping by to pick up or drop off a book on the way to the playground or the grocery store.
“When they are in need of a book, they can take a book,” Ivanisik said. “They’re starting to understand that empathy and that compassion. They can put books into the Little Free Library for other families to take. I think it’s great, too, because it will kind of build that sense of neighborhood. The kids are coming up and they’ll see another family. They might start discussing what books they’ve taken, what books they’re giving back. Building that sense of community and bridging that gap. Although we read in school and we’re passionate about our students reading and learning, they can also do it at home.”
And that’s especially important now that school has let out. Known as the “summer slide,” students who don’t read over summer vacation can lose up to three months’ worth of reading development, according to Booksource, a classroom library supplier. Students who come from low-income households are especially vulnerable to this due to lack of access to books.
And those numbers can add up to being nearly two years behind by the time students reach fifth grade. Reading at least four books over summer vacation, though, has the potential to stop or even reverse the summer slide. That’s where the Little Free Library can help, said Dickens-Simon.
“When we’re not here, we still have something here for you that’s going to help your children grow and learn,” she said.
‘I don’t want our school to be off to the side, or something you just walk past. I think the only way to do that is if people can see what’s going on.’
This year’s motto at Greenwood was “Broncos Read! Lead! Succeed!” and students and staff took that seriously. The school hosted reading challenges and events, gave away free books as rewards. It already saw success with its indoor Little Free Library, as well as a main office book basket and a parent lending library. With these projects, Dickens-Simon said, the school hopes students will continue to read on the weekends and during the summer.
And it’s not just limited to students, either. Parents and other community members are encouraged to read and borrow books, too.
“We want our community to know that we are a bastion of education,” she said. “We really want our kids to love learning and love to read.”
And it’s working—Ivanisik, who has been at Greenwood for two years and in the district for 16 years, says reading has become a part of her students’ daily routine. The evidence is in her conversations with students, or watching kids talk about what they’re reading in the hallway.
“Before, they were reading because they had to do homework,” she said. “And yes, there were some incentives. But now, they want to read. We have a student here who is an ESL student. She’s in fifth grade. She knows I go and restock the basket out front. Every week, she comes to me and says, ‘When are you going to put in some new books?’ This is her passion, and I feel it’s because of this new change in our building this year.”
Ivanisik has applied for and received a number of book-related grants since last year, and she works with the organization Bridge of Books to sponsor a sort of free book fair for Greenwood students where they get to choose two or three books to keep. Students are also encouraged to donate their own books that they’ve already read or outgrown. They often do.
“Our families don’t have a lot to begin with, but our students understand the importance of showing good character, being empathetic and being kind to one another,” Ivanisik said. “I think that’s just amazing.
Greenwood is 42 percent Hispanic and 49 percent black, according to state records. Many students have parents who are Spanish- or French Creole-dominant, and, during the 2017-18 school year, about 20 students were part of the school’s English as Second Language program. Ivanisik says the Little Free Library will be stocked with books in languages other than English to better reflect Greenwood’s community.
“Reading is reading,” Ivanisik said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re reading in another language. If they’re literate, that’s what we want them to do. If they need to write in Spanish right now, that’s fine. They’ll be able to pick up English when they become more comfortable.”
James hopes and believes that the Little Free Library will have a robust collection by the end of the summer. She knows her students are excited to check out and add to the selection, and she would love to see it replenished regularly.
Dickens-Simon agreed. She also hopes the Little Free Library can help Greenwood become the community core she believes it to be.
“I do want Greenwood to be seen as a hub for the community, but I also want to be seen as an institution where children are striving, where children are learning and happy and safe, where parents are welcome,” Dickens-Simon said. “Where teachers partner with the community and we can bring in businesses, politicians to support us. I don’t want our school to be off to the side, or something you just walk past. I think the only way to do that is if people can see what’s going on.”