This year’s state Teacher of the Year Joni Smith said when she was given the title it would not just be symbolic – she wanted to make a difference in children’s education.

For her latest project, the Albany Middle School teacher enlisted the assistance of about a dozen of her students to create a free book program, a literacy project, to put the spotlight on reading deficiencies of some students in the parish.

Smith said the group tossed around a few ideas while brainstorming ideas before coming up with the free book program, through which children’s books could be distributed throughout the parish.

“We wanted the community to have access to free books for their community,” she said, admitting the logistics were a hurdle. “We didn’t know exactly how to go about it, we just knew that’s what we wanted to do.”

The idea is based on the reading deficit Smith said affects students of all ages, but once they’ve reached middle school, there is little that can be done in terms of curriculum or individualized assistance with reading skills.

“I’m not their English and language arts (ELA) teacher, I’m their science teacher, but students still have to have good reading skills to succeed in my class,” Smith said. “When you have that one child in a class and they’re having trouble reading, you want to be able to help them because you know they’re going to struggle in every subject and their standardized test scores are going to suffer.”

Recent studies have shown that two-thirds of fifth graders across the country are not proficient in reading skills, “which is mind-blowing to me,” Smith said.

She always points out reading deficiencies to a struggling child’s ELA teacher who will work up a plan to help that child but this new free book program allows students to improve their reading just because they want to.

The free book program eases the embarrassment felt by students with reading deficits because they can work on their reading on their own with a book they’ve gotten from the “book stations,” as the group decided to name the distribution points. The first ones have been made from retired newsstands with the coin-operated mechanism removed.

“We decided to make books readily available to the public because a lot of these families who have kids with a reading deficit are also families with a low socioeconomic status,” Smith said, meaning trips to the library are inconvenient at best for parents working two jobs to make ends meet and buying books for their children even more challenging.

“So we wanted to make putting books in those children’s hands more easily available for those families so we decided we wanted to build book stations and place them somewhere convenient,” she continued.

Since everyone, no matter their economic status, has to stop for gas and it’s normally at a convenience store, the group decided that’s where they wanted to place the book stations.

“The idea is for it to be a lending station – to read and return – however, I’m quite aware that those books are not always going to be returned and that doesn’t bother me because that just puts more books in that child’s hands,” Smith said.

Donations of books to the drive are going “great,” the teacher said, giving the group hundreds of books to begin the program. Attorney Neil Sweeney, for example, has given the project several hundred books, The Fuller Center in Hammond has donated books, Smith’s students have contributed to the cause and school libraries and churches are donating as well.

“We don’t want any child not to be able to read and we don’t want any child to fly under the radar with a reading deficit and end up in high school and still not be able to read at the appropriate level,” she said.

Smith said she plans to monitor the results of the reading comprehension portion of standardized tests across the parish to compare this year, with little possible impact from the free book program, to those of the next school year to see if those scores increase.

“I want to know if this is having an impact on the students,” she said.

Smith can be reached at joni.smith@lpsb.org for those people interested in contributing to the project.

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Tommy Comeaux is the Lifestyle editor of The News. He can be reached via email at TommyComeaux@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @tommycomeaux.

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