Levi Leyba

(Special to the Tribune)

Levi Leyba of Mesa is hoping to donate one book to schools in low-income communities for every book he sells.

The kindergarten teacher’s eyes turned wistful as she remembered the words her grandmother used to always say.

“You straighten a tree when they’re little,” Gabriela Humes recalled. “You don’t straighten a tree once that tree has grown.”

The Book for Book program is aiming to do just that.

 A partnership between the Mesa-based Guardian Angel Council and Grasshoppers Observe Dragonflies Publishing House, the program provides bilingual books to children living in low-income communities.

Levi Leyba, executive director and founder of  the 6-year-old Guardian Angel Council, said that with every purchase of a Young Series book, one will be donated to a child in a low-income community, where children struggle with literacy.

Leyba said childhood illiteracy starts at home, potentially dooming a child in later life.

“When children come home with homework or any type of reading material, parental involvement is next to zero because the parents don’t understand what the child brings home,” Leyba said, explaining that bilingual books help parents bridge the language gap between them and their children.

The average child growing up in a middle-class family has been exposed to 1,000 to 1,700 hours of one-on-one picture book reading, as opposed to the 25 hours of one-on-one reading that the average low-income child is exposed to, according to “The Literary Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions” by Jeff McQuillan, a professor in English language learning.

Leyba will donate the bilingual books through Mesa’s Title I schools, which receive federal aid for educating disadvantaged or underserved children. Leyba said he consulted with Title I elementary school principals before starting the Book for Book program.

“Something so small as having a child know how to read by the time they enter the educational system, it’s huge,” he said. “It’s an enormous step. We really need to focus on that.”

Monica Mesa, principal of Longfellow Elementary, said the main problem with low-income children struggling with literacy is their lack of access to books at home. She said Longfellow Elementary tries to encourage parents to read with children in their first language, even if it isn’t English.

 “I don’t think it can be understated how much parents play a part in developing that routine of focusing and developing the mindset that literacy is important,” Mesa said.

Longfellow Elementary School is trying to provide more books that are in a child’s first language, which for some at the school is Spanish, Mesa said. The Book for Book program is working to donate these kinds of titles to children and families. With these books, the students will be able to read, hear the words read aloud and comprehend the story with their parents, Mesa said.

“When they both can understand, it really does bridge that gap because a lot of our parents think they can’t read a story to them,” Mesa said. “But if it is already in Spanish for them, then they’re both understanding.”

Gabriela Humes, a kindergarten Spanish teacher at Hermosa Vista Elementary School, has worked for Mesa Public Schools for 25 years. A large part of her teaching experience has been in Title I schools.

The kindergarten teacher said children often don’t get much homework help at home; the parents either work two jobs or don’t know the language and feel that they cannot help their kids.

“I think a lot of the time they’re intimidated,” Humes said. “It’s not that they don’t want to help their child. That’s a misconception.”

The Book for Book program launched with four books, but Leyba said he plans on adding a new title once a month. The next books will feature diverse historical figures, like civil rights icon Rosa Parks and artist Frida Kahlo, Leyba said.

Marcie Hutchinson, a former educator who appears to have won last week’s school board race in Mesa, said it is vitally important for Spanish-speaking kids to have access to books, especially ones that they can see themselves in.

“I think it’s about belonging,” Hutchinson said. “That when a kid sees a person that looks like them in a book in school, if they see their language, I really believe that they have a sense that, ‘I belong.’”

Hutchinson said the Book for Book program makes “all the sense in the world” since it’s addressing not just literacy, but bilingualism and diversity as well. She said she can see the program bringing families together through books.

“I’m hoping the impact is that families will share the joy of reading together,” Hutchinson said.

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