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Books bring light to Schoolfield

South/Central Bureau

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — Elaine Dickson and her husband Easton, residents of Rhode Island in the United States, remember how hard it was to access books when they were growing up in rural Jamaica.

More than 30 years later, they are finding that not much has changed in that regard.

“It's like time has stood still,” said Dickson, as she spoke to the Jamaica Observer about their decision in 2013 to launch Reading Owls International. The US-based non-profit organisation — registered as a public charity — is dedicated to distributing children's books in Jamaica.

“He (her husband Easton) is from Hanover, I am from St Mary, and we had the same experiences many of these kids have — of not having access to books. We are hoping that by providing access to books, kids can be able to increase their literacy levels and that will flow into other areas, like numeracy,” Dickson said.

When the Observer caught up with her last November, Dickson had come to Schoolfield Primary and Infant School, two miles south-west of Malvern in the Santa Cruz mountains, to participate in an official book presentation and formal opening of the school library.

The school, in the quiet farming community of Schoolfield, was the latest in a chain of schools and community organisations receiving books and other help from Reading Owls for the development of libraries.

According to Dickson, her organisation gets most of its donated children's books — incorporating great diversity from the most popular authors — through the US-based charity, First Book. The books are sourced from the globe's leading publishing houses including Amazon, Scholastic and Random House.

From a warehouse in Rhode Island, Reading Owls partners with the well known charity, Food For the Poor, which ships and clears the donated books through Customs.

In order to ensure that those most in need benefit, Reading Owls works closely with US Peace Corps volunteers in Jamaica and agencies such as the Jamaica Library Service and the Ministry of Education.

Dickson told the Observer that in addition to donating books, her organisation helps with infrastructure to make sure books are adequately stored and displayed for lending and on the spot reading.

“The needs vary beyond books, sometimes its shelving, sometimes we put in flooring, sometimes we do electrical work… anything that's needed,” she said.

With far too many Jamaican children reading below their age-group level, Dr Nadine Leachman of the Ministry of Education's Region Five hailed the Reading Owls initiative as a boost for Jamaican schools and the education system.

“Once children learn to read well, they can achieve,” she said.

Principal at Schoolfield Primary and Infant, Natalee Roper-Allen said that there have been positive changes since the Reading Owls assistance programme began in September.

“Already I am seeing progress,” she said, explaining that some children had advanced from one reading level to the next.

After doing the analysis, Roper-Allen, who has been in charge at Schoolfield Primary and Infant since May 2016, found that students sitting the Grade Six Achievement Test high school entrance exams and Grade Four Literacy tests, urgently needed to read more to improve their comprehension skills.

She explained that US Peace Corps worker at Schoolfield, Anastasia Steinbrunner, who is part of a staff projects committee, came up with the idea of approaching Reading Owls.

“Miss Steinbrunner discovered Readiong Owls and she, who is here to assist literacy, brought it to my attention. The process for applying was difficult, so many papers, but we kept at it, and when I went to get these books there were over 13 boxes …,” she said.

“It was a gratifying moment in August to receive these books and when we presented them to the children here in September, they were awed. We felt very pleased. This move is bringing Schoolfield in the light. It is letting parents know that the school's administration cares. It is making the children feel that they are special. It will help to provide motivation, which is a key factor in the learning process…,” Roper-Allen said.

For Steinbrunner, the book donation from Reading Owls means the school will not only be able to lend books to students but also to parents, who will be expected to read along with their children. She identified the setting up of a streamlined lending programme as being among her primary tasks, going forward.

“Getting people interested in reading is the most important thing, and that will bring huge benefits to school and community,” she said.

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