With Help, Indy Families Bring Home Books Kids Want to Read

Improved test scores show a home-by-home approach could be one way to meet Indiana’s literacy goals.

Zion, 11, flips through one of his favorite books, “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, at his Indianapolis home. Zion’s family received a Mind Trust grant to build a home library. (Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy)

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Jessica Davis knows all about encouraging her kids to read. The Garfield Park mom has three kids, all at “totally different” reading levels. Her daughter will pick up three books at a time, while one of her sons wants nothing to do with it. Her other son has autism, Davis said, and he needs extra stimulation to drive his interests.

For Davis, that means filling her home with all kinds of books — chapter stories and picture books, fantasy novels, sports stories and biographies of successful Black athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Wilma Rudolph — to capture each of their interests.

That can be a big cost for a family of three growing readers, so Davis said, she turned to The Mind Trust.

The local nonprofit has given small literacy grants,ranging from $500 to $5,000, to dozens of Center Township families over the last four years. Equipped now with more than 200 books in her home library, Davis said the grant helped advance her family’s reading goals far more quickly than she could have achieved on her own.

“I don’t think, where I am financially, there would have been a point in time where I had that chunk of money to do something like this,” Davis said. “It would have been little by little.”

At a time when Indiana educators and lawmakers are looking to improve reading scores across the state, Davis’ approach shows an example of one model that works. The mom says all of her kids’ test scores have improved.

The Mind Trust began its Go Farther Literacy Fund four years ago after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledging that learning gaps were likely to worsen as students spent time out of school.

State officials say literacy rates have been on the decline for a decade, long before the pandemic. But reading scores have remained stagnant in the years since COVID-19 started, with about one in five third graders last spring not passing the state’s standardized reading exam. That motivated state officials to secure grants for large-scale tutoring projects and seek legislative solutions to help Indiana meet a goal of 95% of students reading at grade level by 2027.

The Mind Trust oversees one of those large grant projects. The Indiana Department of Education chose the nonprofit to administer its statewide Indiana Learns program, which has awarded more than 20,000 tutoring grants in partnership with 380 schools. But, the Go Farther Literacy Fund, which may only reach a handful of students with each award, is just as important, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit told Mirror Indy.

“Not only is it building literacy skills,” said Kateri Whitley, the Mind Trust’s senior communications director, “It’s building community.”

Davis and her family have received two rounds of grants. She used the first, a $2,500 grant awarded last year, to select books for her kids and build out a space where they would enjoy reading. That included a beanbag chair, rug, bookshelves and a crash pad for sensory learners.

“I’m just trying to cultivate a healthy relationship with being calm and reading at the same time,” she said.

This year, Davis applied for a second round, totaling $2,000, to help buy a laptop to use digital programs such as Audible and Amazon Books during the summer after her kids turn in their school-issued Chromebooks. She also picked out a children’s dictionary and thesaurus set, cursive handwriting books and new titles her kids picked for themselves.

Davis said her family hopes to apply again for a third round to add seats in their home reading room.

“We have found with all three of our kids, a lot of their friends don’t have the best home life, don’t have the opportunity to even go to the library,” Davis said. “The next steps would just be adding to our collection … so that other children can come and have a spot to sit and relax and read.”

Building cultural connections

The Mind Trust has given four dozen grants to families. The nonprofit also awarded funds to a few small projects each year.

Spanish for Entities, an Indianapolis-based language school, received a $3,000 grant this year to support the launch of Libros Para Indy, a program that puts books written by Latino authors directly in the hands of Spanish-speaking families.

María Rosana Mestre, the program’s founder, sources hard-to-find books by authors from countries such as Argentina, Chile, Spain and Venezuela. Families are encouraged to take home their favorite titles, read them and bring them back to exchange with others.

Some of the books are bilingual. Others are written in Portuguese. Mestre says incorporating these books into bilingual students’ reading can help build a connection to material they may not otherwise find in their English-based lessons at school. That connection, Mestre said, can create excitement for reading that later translates to other studies.

“It’s reading for pleasure, not reading because it’s homework,” Mestre said. “The truth is that many times they are not native English readers, and many of their families are behind because they don’t read at home.”

Judith Gomez heard about Libros Para Indy through her children’s school, Invent Learning Hub. She showed up there last week with her daughters to pick up new books to take home.

“I feel like an important person because of the people who come here and share information,” Gomez, speaking in Spanish, told Mirror Indy through a translator. “They take account of us as Latinos.”

Seeing results

Davis used her grant money to educate her kids about their cultural heritage. She shopped at Loudmouth Books, owned by local author Leah Johnson, and picked titles that teach Black history or have appeared on banned books lists. She said she wants her children to feel represented through the books they read.

“With their reading comprehension, it has made a difference for them to have stories that they’re really interested in,” Davis said. “Because now they can give me the actual synopsis about what was just read.”

She says those gains have matched the goals her kids’ teachers set for them at school. Davis said she regularly communicates with the educators at Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School.

She shares credit with her kids’ teachers, but feels strongly the extra time reading out of school has made a difference. Today, her kids read for at least 20 to 30 minutes a day.

“They enjoy it a lot more,” Davis said. “That’s really the goal. I want them to be enthusiastic about all of it.”

The Mind Trust plans to offer the grant again next school year. In the meantime, the nonprofit has shared resources on its website about how families can start their own home libraries.

This story was originally published on Mirror Indy.

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