CASTLE ROCK – Jennifer Engkraf still remembers her excitement when a national non-profit organization donated books to Castle Rock Elementary School, which she attended in the 1990s.
Today, Engkraf owns a Castle Rock bookstore and leads local efforts to resuscitate the book donations that sparked her love of reading about three decades ago. Now more children will receive free books to increase their literacy levels and create lifelong readers, as a federally funded program for Engkraf did.
“Since I learned to read, it’s as if this magic secret opened up to me,” she says. “I want to give kids access to that.”
Castle Rock Program
For about 42 years, students in Cowlitz County received free books through a national nonprofit called Reading Is Fundamental, until local efforts disbanded in 2016.
Engkraf was prompted to revive book distributions at the city’s elementary school when a private donor, who previously lived in Castle Rock, contributed about a year ago, she said.
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The plan is to provide Castle Rock third-grade students with a book of their choice twice a year. The owner of Vaults Books & Brews said buying books for the roughly 100 students costs around $1,000 per session.
The first book competition organized by Engkraf was held in November. She plans to hold another contest in May and plans to form a 501©(3) this summer to collect donations.
Engkraf said she selected a dozen titles and arranged them in a Castle Rock Primary School classroom, similar to her experience with Reading Is Fundamental. Students choose a book, have the inside cover stamped and write their name underneath.
She always has copies of her elementary school book selections, Engkraf said, with her signatures printed or cursive inside the covers. By signing his name, Engkraf realized the book was his – an important step in making reading a daily activity.
“Some kids go home and don’t see any books and think reading is just for school,” Engkraf said. “I want to normalize reading.”
Reading is fundamental Vice President of Operations Cammie Backus said that when students have books at home, their reading skills improve. She noted a literacy journal called “Reading Psychology” which published a study in 2010 showing that low-income students who received books over three years had higher reading proficiency scores than low-income students. income who did not receive books.
“Book ownership has a direct impact on a child’s potential to become a proficient reader, which is why providing free books to disadvantaged communities is so important,” Backus said.
Castle Rock is home to underfunded students, who performed worse on a recent Standard English exam than students with more resources. The state reports that about 29% of low-income students at Castle Rock Elementary School met grade level standards for the language arts and literacy exam this school year, while 44 % of non-low-income students met requirements.
Local literacy programs
For approximately 35 years, Reading Is Fundamental has provided federal matching grants to organizations across the country that have used funds to purchase up to five books per year for participating students.
Backus said Reading Is Fundamental’s federal government contract to supply books was terminated in 2012. A Daily News report says the Cowlitz County effort was disbanded in 2016.
In the 2010-11 school year alone, Backus reports that Cowlitz County Reading Is Fundamental awarded 26,000 books to 6,400 children using more than $18,000 in federal grants.
Since the local efforts of Reading is Fundamental ended, another reading nonprofit has grown in popularity with young local children.
United Way of Cowlitz and Wahkiakum Counties manages local gifts through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a non-profit organization that sends children up to age 5 a new book a month. All four Rotary clubs in the county – Kelso, Woodland, Longview Noon Edition and Longview Early Edition – supported the program.
The Longview Noon Rotary Club recently reported that 119,567 books have been distributed in Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties since the program launched locally in 2018.
The Washington State Legislature also passed a bill this spring to create a state office for the nonprofit Country Singer’s Association to serve children across Washington. Lawmakers set aside $26,000 in the state’s supplemental operating budget for the program in 2023.
Engkraf, who studied early childhood education in college, focuses on third graders as this is a critical age for literacy. Engkraf said it takes longer for students to catch up in reading after third grade.
She also wants the children to enjoy reading as much as she does. Engkraf still remembers one of her Reading Is Fundamental selections about a girl who learned to ride a bike, which she “read so many times.” Other books, like The Baby-Sitters Club series, helped her cope with the loss of her mother at a young age, which also happened to a character.
“I want kids to choose a book they like,” Engkraf said. “Whether it’s above or below their reading level, enjoy it. This is forever.