Open Books Now, Open Doors Later

Leon Webb, a former middle school history teacher, wanted to make an impact on improving literacy in low-income schools.

So in 2012, he and a friend launched the Open Book Foundation, a nonprofit that donates thousands of books every year to Title 1 schools.

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Webb is keen on donating books to schools because literacy develops critical thinking skills and much more. “You must be able to read,” he says. “Everything starts with literacy. If they can’t read, nothing else matters.”

When kids start reading for pleasure, “they learn sentence structure, grammar, verb usage, critical thinking, rising and falling action, plot,” and more, Webb says.

The Open Book Foundation is in 11 states so far, “roughly 850 classrooms.” Interested teachers can register on its website.

The organization also partners with each state’s Department of Public Instruction.

“We’re then able to identify each Title 1 school in the state and pull these schools’ report cards and see their literacy scores over the past three years, the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and the average class size,” Webb says. “If the school’s literacy rate is below the state and county grade level, we reach out to the school directly.”

Asked if the students who receive the books are developing as readers, Webb says they are, but he hesitates to take credit for it.

“There are multiple factors that affect how a child’s literacy proficiency increases or not. What we’ve done is created an opportunity for that child to have greater access to books.”

The Open Book Foundation focuses on grades K through 5, with an emphasis on grades 2 and 3. “Third grade is the first time students can be tested for literacy proficiency,” Webb says. “We want to halt the reading gap there, so it will decrease as they go forward.”

Many of the books are multicultural, including Spanish to English titles. All are on grade level and content-appropriate.

The Open Book Foundation is also working on stimulating programs that focus on family and community engagement. He and his team have developed a unique Breakfast with Badges event, in which at-risk middle schoolers and police officers not only eat together but develop a mentoring relationship.

“The kids will have direct access to these police officers and vice versa. The police will meet with them quarterly to see how they’re doing. The idea is to break down the fear and animosity that exists between the police and the community.”

To donate or find out more, go to the website of the Open Book Foundation.