Click photo to enlarge
KaiNu Moore, 5, reads a book to Boris, a patient pug, at the Lakeview Branch of the Oakland Public Library on July 24, 2013. (Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today)

RICHMOND — Galvanized by a national reading campaign, Richmond and communities across California are launching innovative partnerships that are resulting in new early literacy programs in schools, libraries and even laundromats.

"There's a lot of books here, really good books," said 9-year-old Melanie Garcia-Macias, who sat with her back to a big red bookshelf at the end of a line of washing machines at the Clean Express Coin Laundry in Richmond. A copy of "The Night Before Christmas" was splayed open on her lap.

"You can take one home, but you have to bring one back or bring one from your home to replace it," she said. "I think it's a pretty good plan."

The plan — giving students free access to engaging titles while their parents fluff and fold — is just one of the ingenious ways communities are opening doors to literacy through the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Children who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade -- 53 percent of California's children -- are four times more likely to drop out of high school, according to research by the foundation. That correlation, which the foundation first wrote about in 2010, kicked off the Campaign for Grade Level Reading. The campaign offers information, technical support and access to fundraising opportunities so that community leaders can better organize around the goal of improving literacy in young students.

Communities that join the campaign do not get direct financial support, nor are they given specific objectives. Rather, they are asked to collaborate with other local groups on projects concentrating on early education, chronic absence and summer learning. That flexibility has allowed the 17 participating communities in California to tap into their creativity to help boost students' reading levels -- like the program operating in the laundromat in Richmond's low-income Nystrom neighborhood.

The books, donated by residents and the Richmond Library, belong to a system of "take one, leave one" bookshelves placed in businesses throughout the city by local literacy group West County Reads. Children are encouraged to bring borrowed books back and trade them in for new ones, but there's no penalty for keeping the books at home. The program has given out 15,000 books so far this year.

The bookshelf at Clean Express is pretty hard to keep stocked, said parent volunteer Tana Montero.

"It says that kids really want to read," Montero said. "They love books, and they're excited about them. There's not enough access to books."

Not every community has created new programming as a result of the campaign. Some places, such as Oakland, Los Angeles and San Francisco, already have significant pro-literacy programming in place. For those communities, the benefit of becoming involved in the national campaign has meant a chance to align the efforts of multiple agencies.

In other communities, however, the campaign has galvanized programs.

Stockton librarian Suzy Daveluy said she knew children in her city were struggling with reading, based on the number of help requests she got from parents. But she didn't realize how bad the literacy crisis had become until she met with national campaign leaders.

Students had always been able to sign up and win small prizes for reading a certain number of books, but Daveluy felt that wasn't enough. So this summer she started tapping into some of Stockton's known resources: its teachers and teenagers.

Daveluy asked teachers to recommend children in grades kindergarten through third who were struggling with reading and writing, and worked with a retired teacher to plan a 10-week tutoring curriculum. Then she recruited and trained 25 teenage volunteers to teach the classes.

Now, 35 to 45 students show up at the library three times a week for hourlong sessions to work on their reading in groups of three or less. The participating children were given a standard literacy test on the first day of the program to determine their current reading level. When the students were tested five weeks later, most of those who had been attending regularly had already moved up into the next grade level.

Selena Durell started bringing her 6-year-old daughter, Olivia, to the program because she was worried about her daughter starting second grade. Durell knew the girl was behind but couldn't afford tutoring sessions to help her catch up.

"I'm so ecstatic that they are offering free tutoring, because usually you have to pay for something like this," Durell said.

Olivia is caught up now, her mom said, and thinks reading is fun. She's checked out library books to bring home and read to her cousins and friends. The little girl still isn't big on complete sentences, but when asked to talk about the people who are helping her this summer she becomes positively verbose.

"They help you read and they help you write," she said. "They help you learn stuff so when you go to second grade, you read above your grade level."

EdSource Today is the journalism arm of EdSource, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 1977 to engage Californians on key education challenges. Read more at www.edsource.org.