BOOKSPRING

Based in Texas as a grassroots organization, BookSpring has been providing a critical role in closing the early literacy gap since 1974. Grown out of merger of the local affiliates of two nationally acclaimed literacy organizations, Reach Out and Read and Reading Is Fundamental, BookSpring adapted to suit the specific character and needs of the people of Central Texas, and beyond. Through healthcare providers, schools, and community partners, we support over one hundred thousand child engagements with books for ownership annually. Through access to books, promotional events, and information on how to engage families in the world through written and spoken language, they aim to inspire a lifelong love of reading.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I'm thrilled to welcome Emily Cicchini, executive director of Book Spring today to join us from Austin, Texas. Emily, thank you so much for being here with us.

 

Emily Cicchini

I'm happy to be here. 

 

Molly Ness

So, I've spent some time looking at the impressive work that you guys in Texas do, but talk to us about Book Spring. What’s your mission? How did you get started? And what are some of the programs that you offer to end book deserts?

 

Emily Cicchini

Book Spring is a 45-year-old organization in Austin, Texas that grew from really a grassroots book distribution- passion from a lot of people just in the small community here.  Used to be a small community in Austin now it's much larger and our mission is to build early literacy in children and families through healthcare, education, and the community, so our methodology for distributing books is that we partner with schools and medical clinics and other community-based organizations that serve families in need to make sure that these families have books in the home. We're really about getting books into homes so that they can keep them and exactly as you have, your- promoting to get rid of these book deserts out there, so we really work strategically to get books to the families in need in Central Texas- is our region.

 

Molly Ness

And I'm so glad to hear you partnering with healthcare organizations. The American Academy of Pediatrics has released statements- really powerful statements about the importance of reading aloud. There are great organizations like Reach Out and Read, which do an amazing job partnering with pediatricians. The idea being that to end book deserts, we have to reach kids and families where they are and for so many of our kids and families, they’re at their pediatrician's office so what are the programs that you're currently running as a part of Book Spring?

 

Emily Cicchini

We have three program areas. One is the Ed area and that's the program that works with the formal education system. We have a program that's called Books for Me and it distributes up to three books from K through grade 5 so it works with a whole school at a time. Everybody at that school campus gets up to three books a year and a number of different distributions, we look for the what's the librarian says. That's one of the two Ed programs. The other Ed program that we are working with which is the new one- program which is built off of kind of a Harvard read program as well as the reading is fundamental Read for Success programs which were kind of early a doctor's idea of a book flood to address a book desert which is a program where first-graders and second-graders- we give out 10 books right before the summer break. We scaffold with curriculum that is done in the classroom read aloud that are selected for a theme of what I want to be when I grow up so it's a create themes curriculum and we create this book so that they are also a book of choice for a child's imagination. If they want to be a firefighter or a nurse or a ballerina anything that they want to be and that program is proving to be really successful. We've been doing comparison studies between kids that get our program and don’t get our program. As you probably know that there's is troubling statistic that 80% of low-income kids lose reading skills over the summer and our cohorts 66% are not only not losing score skills over the summer but they're going up by 80%.

 

Molly Ness

Wow!

Emily Cicchini

Let me go back and restate that one more time because I miss-stated it. So, with our summer success program kiddos, I guess the match comparison group- The national benchmark is that 80% of kids- low-income kids are losing skills over summer. With our summer success kids, 66% are either staying the same or actually improving their reading skills over the summer when they get back in the fall. So, it's a really successful program. We're rolling that out across Central Texas so our Ed programs- I'll keep going if that's all right with you. About the other two program areas because it's kind of books to read- Book Spring is kind of wonderful because we're very agile and we're very responsive to the community and the needs and we go where we need to go. That's always in the formal education program. The next set of programs are the art program that work with the doctors in the clinics so we have one that is called Read Well which is very much modeled on Reach Out and Read and supports reach out and read active clinics by creating and providing the parents support for their active programs in the clinic and these are pediatricians giving books as part of the regularly scheduled wellness exam. The other program that we have is called Pediatric Literacy Kits. We're giving books to home visitors that are going into homes particularly for early childhood care intervention. Also we had the nurses that are doing follow-up visits to every child born at a certain hospital and they're getting a little bundle of special gifts that are very early board books and how that message is and how important it is to read together with your child in that critical birth through age 3. And then we have our goal program which is all the other stuff that we do- the large distributions that we do in the community so we really know that we can saturate all the areas- all our regional area with books.

 

Molly Ness

Wow. So much going on in Central Texas. You're really looking at the issue of book deserts not just from a singular lens, but you're looking at it through education and health care and community partnership and those are the programs as you are- history suggests that are going to be continuing to be around and successful and really grow readers. You alluded to it a little bit, but can you tell us a bit more about the population that you serve especially for those of us who are not super familiar with Central Texas?

 

Emily Cicchini

Yeah. Central Texas is a population of about 2 million people and it's growing. It's been rapidly growing, and it's been changing demographically- extensively over the last 5 or 10 years. There's been a lot of people coming to Austin. Austin is a great place to be. I'm just going to tell you that and it's a lovely city. It's a very diverse community. Over 50% of our population overall is Hispanic and the younger population is even more than that. There’s a lot of Spanish spoken in the home, so we have to- unlike some other national programs, we absolutely have to have everything bilingual and be really- support having that home language being supported as well as the target language if they're speaking Spanish at home. We want them to have a bilingual Spanish-English book or just a Spanish book so that just they can be exposed to language but we really do believe that sort of you have to have language support in something that's actually being spoken and the interaction is happening in your home so that's why some of the national programs have to be adopted for us from the curricular level to the book level because it's hard to get Spanish language books. And also, in Austin we have a very big divide- economic divide between people who have books. People who are affluent and people who are not so affluent and it's interesting. We did an annual survey of Central Texas that we contracted out with some sociologists who really do it demographically valid survey and ask questions. How much are you reading out loud? How much books you have at home? And interesting that a lot of affluent families are actually worse about the number of books at home than non-affluent families and we're not sure exactly why that is. We think partly it’s because they're doing more digital reading which is not necessarily- the jury's out kind of like on whether digital reading is pretty good particularly under age 8 before you're really a strong independent reader so we really  find that pretty interesting that that message that books in the home are important for all families regardless of what your affluent is so-

 

Molly Ness

Let me interject with a couple of thoughts that you're bringing to my attention. I've had the pleasure of being in Austin. I've seen its diversity. I've had its amazing food. I’ve listened to its great live music scene. The only unfortunate thing about it is that I was there for the International Literacy Association Conference in the summer of 2018 and it was 108 degrees so that was the only bad thing about it. All those now that I know how much is going on in terms of literacy in Austin, I will try to forget the overwhelming heat. I'm interested in hearing you talk about some of the messages books in the home for more affluent families and what you're saying is reminding me of an interview I did in an earlier podcast with Meghan Cox Gurdon who writes the Rise of the Read Aloud and the research is showing that parents and caregivers don't interact with young children around digital text nearly to the extent that they do with a hard copy of a book and we certainly don't know the rhyme or the reason for that. They guess at this point is because when we use digital devices were used to using them in a solitary fashion and so having a digital text and the interaction just isn't as rich as it is with very young children especially as it is with a hard copy. I think you're right. The research is still out- is still a little bit unequivocal and we're still learning more and more every day, so I'm interested in seeing that you guys are tackling it not just with the stereotypical book desert and low-income areas, but also getting this message out to families of all different socioeconomic statuses

 

Emily Cicchini

Exactly. Exactly. So. we've got this big 20 books by 2020 campaign. The big idea was to make sure that every family has 20 books. We are working with our local United Way to really- supporting us a great deal and we're really now setting a goal for 2023 to try to get to 70% of families reporting if they have 20 books at home. Right now, in Austin, it's only 42% of families saying that they have 20 or more books at home which seems remarkably well. Really that's kind of a call wake-up call for us, so I think this idea of just the importance of just having twenty books no matter who you are. If you have a child under the age of 12, you should have at least 20 age-appropriate books at home- you know. That's just like a given and I think that message resonates with people and seems to have caught fire here in Austin and that's why Book Spring is doing so well because people get in there like you don't have books at home well how are you going to be able to read you know? It's just- you know a very tangible thing and so that being able to quantify that and that of course goes back to that Evan study from 2010 and we really use that as the evidence for moving that kind of social movement forward.

 

Molly Ness

So strongly resonates with the workout Susan Neuman who was in the first podcast who talks about how you can't create a culture of literacy at home when books aren't constantly present.

 

Emily Cicchini

Exactly.

 

Molly Ness

So, you're starting to speak a little bit in the direction that I want to go next which is your impact. That sounds like you guys show some really thoughtful work to analyze your impact and room to grow. So, talk to us about what you're seeing. You certainly have a pretty long history. What is- what are some of the results of your work?

 

Emily Cicchini

Yeah. I think it's really interesting and because we craft this different sectors- one of the big challenges here was how do we report our overall impact in a way that I don't have to go into all the details about all the studies that we are doing? All of these evaluations that we do it- the program, how could we make it kind of like a larger story? And this is an overtime- it- realizing that we're not going to check. We’re not going to track one child and one book so what can we do from kind of a statistical grounded level approach- strategic approach? And what is the zip code in which they're being served? So, we have clinics in a zip code. We have schools in a zip code. We have other community partners in a zip code. So, what we really do is that we track all of our activities. And Book Spring does support over a thousand activities a year. We pretty much are doing something every day, every workday of the year and often on Saturdays. So, we're tracking it- those all in our database and were able to count how many kids were there, how many parents were there, what their ages were, how many books we gave out, and in what languages they gave out, and what the ZIP code was, what the county was, what the community partner was. And that way, we were able to slice and dice this data and be able to say that okay as the 99 zip code in the Texas area, we are serving this x many and what we know right now, what we know is that there's about 80,000 kids under the age of 12 in Central Texas living in poverty and we know that from the American Community Family survey- the one from the census so that kind of gets updated every November. And it's a projection- typical projection, but it rolls down to the number of kids in each zip code. So, we take what we have done, and we correlate it with that to find out how many kids were in that zip code, how many kids did we touch through an event, and how many books did we give out. So if I'm- that were able to track are we serving this ZIP code enough; are we serving this ZIP code too much because a lot of things and I think that has that have happened in a lot of communities not just Austin. These are just things that I encourage other communities to look at. You'll have to look at 1 zip code- kind of well-known and a lot of support and foundation support and nonprofit support will go to that particular area where is there could be two zip codes over in some other place with a very strong need, but because it doesn't have that advocate or its not well-known, it's less scouted, So ours is really a strong equity mission of what can we do at this point to get to all those kids. So we're serving 105,000 kids and about 80% of them are low-income, so my goal is to make sure that those- we've got enough statistical saturation that all of those 80,000 kids are going to get at least three books a year which will add up to 20 books by the time they’re age 8. That's kind of the methodology that we’re using. We know we're about 60% of the way there, so we’re still going to grow, but we've got to plan.

 

Molly Ness

Certainly, your work is cut out, but you're going about everything in such a thoughtful way. Attention to the population you're serving, attention to the community, outreach also being really cognizant of measuring the impact of your work so-

 

Emily Cicchini

Well, thank you. Thank you for noticing.

 

Molly Ness

Well I'm sure it consumes a lot- a big portion of your time and your brain and in your time with Book Spring, what has been your biggest surprise with your organization?

 

Emily Cicchini

I think what's hard about supporting literacy from other things- other causes that I've been involved with is that it’s a long-term game. It's really hard to make this acute case so particularly when there so many terrible things happening and certainly in Texas- in Austin. We are so concerned about the kids along the border. We've been so concerned about- you know just a number of different issues and it's hard sometimes to say, hey but we've got to keep those books going. We've got to keep the literacy going. So sometimes they will wax and wane. I think that's the hardest thing is to- to keep it constantly top-of-mind. There's a lot of kind of surface support for literacy. Of course, kids should have books, but turning it into action, turning that into dollars, turning that into the everyday picking up the boxes and getting them out to the church or to the schoolyard, it's really about grassroots support much more than I realized. And I think that's really a lovely thing. But people can make a difference. It's not that hard to do a book drive, to sort the books thoughtfully and- thankfully- and get them to the right places so first I want to systematize everything so they- so I can get those numbers and I'm kind of a data-driven person- I'm kind of a number person, but I've come to appreciate more how it's really about the interaction is happening because of the books as well as the books themselves.

 

Molly Ness

And as I've spent the last several months talking to literacy activists like yourself, what has been so remarkable is to see the power of an individual person can be felt in a community justice as much as a major organization. I've spoken with everybody from some college kids who ride their bikes into trailer parks to bring books all the way up to multimillion-dollar organizations who are putting vending machines in low-income areas so the idea here is that books- just or something we can address and it can be one individual person as well as an organization that has 40 years of a successful track record, but the fact that it's 2019 and this disparity is still present is perhaps a surprise enough as it is-

 

Emily Cicchini

Right.

 

Molly Ness

So as we wrap up, I want to ask you a question that I ask of all of my guests. You use the word flooding and we so often., when we think about book deserts, it's too often we think while we'll just flood these areas with books and really that sort of skims the surface. You alluded to the idea that literacy is a long-term change. We're in this for a lot not a quick-fix, but really to build a culture of reading, it takes more than just mere access to books so my belief is to end book deserts, we also have to create communities where there's constant conversations about ourselves as readers, our reading identities, our reading lives so that kids can understand the importance of reading in our personal and professional lives. So in that vein, to honor that belief that ending book deserts does more than just access to books, I asked all of my guests to give me a book from their past or present that has really- that has had a powerful impact on them as a person and as a reader. So, try to think of that one book that jumps out at you. I know it's impossible to narrow it down to one, but what is that one book that has really changed you as a person or as a reader?

 

Emily Cicchini

Oh, man- I mean there's so many books, but I did just finish Michelle Obama's Becoming and I just love the heck out of it. And the thing that's so remarkable to me was President Obama was undaunted by criticism and so anytime that somebody- anytime we're getting something done there's a lot of people that think they can do it better or they can do it different, but her description of him and their wonderful relationship- you know and how wonderful their relationship was and how supportive she was of him and how she has- was able to keep her own identity that she said he could just- he thrives on it. It didn't bug him that there were conflict. He just kept going and I thought that wow. What a remarkable- what a remarkable couple- you know. So it's just so wonderful to be able to see that insight into an intimate relationship by reading a book.

 

Molly Ness

I had the pleasure of actually listening to Becoming as an audiobook and before I started, I didn't know that she narrates it. Not only is she a beautiful writer but to listen to her voice and her narration and her delivery made the experience for me even richer and obviously such a literacy advocate, Michelle Obama. And actually the term book deserts, some people trace it back to her use of the word food desert which her- one of her- so much about childhood nutrition and she really started talking about food desert that so often go hand in hand with book deserts because they're all concentrated around low-income communities. I'm not going to off in a food desert train of thought because that would lead me to a whole other podcast, but her and I like certainly the works- really listen to Becoming and being just riveted by how powerful they were as leaders and social justice activists.

 

Emily Cicchini

Right.

 

Molly Ness

So, thank you so much for your time. We will direct listeners to the endbookdeserts.com website to find out more about Books Spring. You'll be able to find more about the impact the ongoing programs. My hunch is that you'll be contacted by a lot of listeners who are looking to replicate similar work in their areas and want to learn more from an organization with such a successful track history. So, look for some emails from people who are looking to end book deserts in their communities. Emily, thank you for your time and thank you for the work that you do in Central Texas.

 

Emily Cicchini

Thank you for the opportunity and thank you for what you're doing.

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