Literacy and Access to Books Need to be a Priority in Our Schools

In my first year of teaching, I had two bookcases in my 4th grade classroom. I was excited to build a cozy corner for students to sit and enjoy all the books that would fill those shelves.

After searching through the discarded resources the previous teacher had left behind, I found few books. Those I did find had torn spines, missing pages, and Dick and Jane characters unrepresentative of my students. When I inquired to my principal about ordering more, he told me I was free to use my $150 school supply stipend, and added, but then with what would I buy paper, pencils, and folders for the year.

This memory has stayed with me because in a class of 32 students, many reading at Kindergarten and 1st grade levels, I had enough books for half of one of the shelves on one of the cases.

The lack of books and reading resources in a 4th grade classroom was detrimental to students in the fall of 1999 in Compton, California. This is a city where 30% of students were proficient on last spring’s state English Language Arts (ELA) exams. Literacy is a fundamental skill that all of us need to succeed in life, yet our students who go to school every day and whose families want the world for them, do not have adequate resources and are not reading at grade level.

Children growing up in low-income families have big dreams.  They also have real challenges.  They hear two-thirds fewer words than students from families not living in poverty, according to researchers at the University of Kansas. By the time students enter Kindergarten, they have been exposed to 30 million fewer words than children growing up in affluent households. Yet their dreams, and those of their families, are real.

Research from American Educational Research Association shows that children who cannot read at grade level by 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school than peers who are reading at grade level. When poverty is added to the equation – and in Compton, 94% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch – that beautiful child is 13 times less likely to graduate on time.

Books have always been important to me, and as a classroom teacher, I prioritized building a classroom library for my students and creating a cozy reading corner. Over time, the space in my classroom grew from a half of one shelf to two full cases and then to four cases, one of which was bartered with a colleague in exchange for a few chairs. Students moved from sitting on a few simple carpet squares donated from a local carpet store to enjoying their books on bean bags (donated by an anonymous DonorsChoose funder), to sharing their books on my late aunt’s love seat as they elbowed each other to sit on because it was so cozy.

For students in low-income communities, like the ones in which many of us work, literacy can be life changing. In the current climate of bullying and incendiary speech, it is critical that students have books that reflect their culture, families, heritage, and themselves. The challenges for children in poverty are numerous. But their dreams – as well as the dreams of their mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – are equally real. We know that limited resources are a challenge. For our children, limited literacy skills should not be one of them.

Here are some book list that highlight diverse characters and themes of cultural inclusion:

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Sandra Kinne

Sandra Kinne

Sandra Kinne is the Founder and Executive Director of Paragon Academy of Compton, a TK/Kinder – 8th grade free, public charter school driven by excellence for all. Paragon Academy opens in August 2018. Learn more at
A former Fellow with the selective, national organization Building Excellent Schools, Sandra studied more than 40 of the highest-performing schools that educate students in low-income communities. Observing best practices of instruction, school culture, and school leadership, Sandra also received extensive training in finance, facilities, curriculum, and organizational leadership. She completed five-week-long leadership residencies at Endeavor College Prep in Los Angeles in January 2017 and Great Lakes Academy in August 2017
As someone from a low-income background, Sandra is passionate about creating opportunity, access, and hope for students and their families. As a first-generation college graduate, she knows the power of an education and wants to provide an exemplary education for children of Compton, where she began her career in education 18 years ago.
Sandra was a 1999 Los Angeles corps member with Teach For America, and she taught 4th grade at Kennedy and King elementary schools in the Compton Unified School District for five years. She also taught in Syracuse, NY in a Special Education program for emotionally disturbed students and at Southside Academy Charter School, teaching 1st and 2ndgrade in a school where 97% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch. She was also a Manager of Teacher Leadership Development with Teach For America-Las Vegas Valley, coaching first- and second-year teachers. Sandra served as Assistant Principal at a middle school with the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. Sandra also has worked in research evaluation, consulting on education projects – including PBS Kids.
Sandra has a B.A. in Newspaper Journalism, International Relations, and Women's Studies from Syracuse University, an M.A in Education from Loyola Marymount University, and an M.P.A from Columbia University.

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