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SMART Reading-Children’s Book Bank merger will expand literacy services for Oregon children

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 1/19/2022 Amy Wang, oregonlive.com
Andre Hall, left, interacts with a book during story time at Albina Head Start in Northeast Portland. Reading the book is teacher Brandy Stephens. Jan. 6, 2022. Beth Nakamura/Staff © Beth Nakamura/oregonlive.com/TNS Andre Hall, left, interacts with a book during story time at Albina Head Start in Northeast Portland. Reading the book is teacher Brandy Stephens. Jan. 6, 2022. Beth Nakamura/Staff

Kids and books have always been at the heart of the work that both SMART Reading and Children’s Book Bank do.

The two Portland-based nonprofits have just gone about the work differently.

Now, the nonprofits are combining their efforts by merging into a single organization, a process expected to wrap up sometime in 2022.

“The north star for SMART has always been supporting young students as they begin to learn to read, and getting them excited about and engaged in books, and getting books in their hands. And that’s been the same path that Children’s Book Bank has been on,” said Chris Otis, executive director of SMART Reading. “There’s no focus change for us. That’s part of what makes this (merger) so positive.”

Many culturally specific books at Albina Head Start in Northeast Portland were donated by Children’s Book Bank. Jan. 6, 2022. Beth Nakamura/Staff © Beth Nakamura/oregonlive.com/TNS Many culturally specific books at Albina Head Start in Northeast Portland were donated by Children’s Book Bank. Jan. 6, 2022. Beth Nakamura/Staff

SMART Reading, founded in 1992 as Start Making A Reader Today by business leaders concerned about how many Oregon children were reading below grade level, focuses on partnerships with elementary schools, matching trained adult volunteers with specific students for one-on-one reading sessions during the academic year. It currently provides those services in 28 out of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Children’s Book Bank, founded in 2008 by Danielle Swope to give books to Multnomah County kids who would otherwise go without, focuses on providing books to all children in selected schools and preschool programs, with special attention to summer reading. It’s done so primarily in the Portland area, and the opportunity to expand those services statewide via the merger “is one of the beauties of being able to bring our organizations together,” Otis said.

The two organizations typically serve a combined 22,000 children at about 360 sites each year. They’ve continued operating during the pandemic with online reading sessions, drive-by book dropoffs and other adaptations to COVID-19 safety protocols. Together, the organizations have provided more than 4 million books to Oregon children.

Danielle Swope, seen here in 2018, is founder of the Children’s Book Bank, which works to get books into the homes of all children. © "Tom Hallman The Oregonian/oregonlive.com/TNS Danielle Swope, seen here in 2018, is founder of the Children’s Book Bank, which works to get books into the homes of all children.

Swope, executive director of the Children’s Book Bank until last summer, and Otis said finances were not a factor in the merger, as both organizations are stable.

“We went into this out of a commitment to do some good things for kids in Oregon. It wasn’t about anybody rescuing one another or anything like that,” Otis said. “It was really about, I think, a very pure and sincere interest in doing some additional things for kids in Oregon.”

While a name for the new organization has yet to be announced, SMART Reading will be the lead entity. Otis said it plans to bring on board all of the Children’s Book Bank employees. SMART Reading has a 38-member staff team, while Children’s Book Bank has a staff of about nine full-time equivalents.

“I think the Children’s Book Bank staff is really, really excited about the opportunity to become part of SMART and to finally think that there’s a path toward bringing what we’ve built together … to other parts of the state,” Swope said.

“I think that’s true for SMART as well, probably more so for our team members who are in the metro area, because many of them have had the chance to work with the Book Bank and they understand the services,” Otis said. “They were the ones who said, of course, that makes perfectly good sense that we’re bringing our organizations together.”

In annual surveys at the end of the school year, educators and parents said the nonprofits’ work makes a difference. At least 83% of both groups consistently said they saw improved reading, social and emotional skills as well as increased excitement about books and reading.

Lillian Duran, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Oregon’s College of Education and an expert in early literacy, said teaching children how to use and enjoy books and getting them motivated to seek out books is “incredibly important” in building a foundation for academic success, especially for children who don’t have easy access to books.

Brandy Stephens holds story time at Albina Head Start in Northeast Portland. She is reading , a book donated by Children’s Book Bank. The book takes readers through the experience of having a name that might, for some, be unusual or hard to pronounce. The book teaches pride in individual names. January 6, 2022 Beth Nakamura/Staff © Beth Nakamura/oregonlive.com/TNS Brandy Stephens holds story time at Albina Head Start in Northeast Portland. She is reading , a book donated by Children’s Book Bank. The book takes readers through the experience of having a name that might, for some, be unusual or hard to pronounce. The book teaches pride in individual names. January 6, 2022 Beth Nakamura/Staff

“I’m really excited that those programs exist,” Duran said of SMART Reading and Children’s Book Bank. “We’re often limited by budgetary constraints (in public education) and so it’s important for these outside agencies to pick up the slack, find those gaps and meet the needs of those children and families to create more equity.”

When SMART Reading and Children’s Book Bank give out books, they are helping “to create equity so that all children have the opportunity to access books,” Duran said.

Ericka Guynes, principal at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Southeast Portland, said the preK-5 school set up relationships with SMART Reading and Children’s Book Bank about a decade ago as part of a strategy to focus on early literacy after finding that incoming students were behind their peers in vocabulary, knowledge of the alphabet, and other early literacy skills.

The school also found that 24% of its families had 10 or fewer children’s books at home. A much-cited 2010 study, “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,” concluded that “a book-oriented home environment” helps all children, but especially those who are least advantaged, and that “each addition to a home library helps the children get a little farther in school.”

At Earl Boyles, where 23% of students are learning English and 51% are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, SMART volunteers read with selected students and gave them books. As for the Children’s Book Bank, it made sure that “every time there was a (school) break, kids walked out the door with this great gift and big smiles, love and books in their hands that were theirs to keep,” Guynes said.

Guynes said she was thrilled about the organizations’ merger.

“We’ve had them at the table as individual partners, but it just makes sense because they work so beautifully together,” she said. “The more that we can coordinate our efforts instead of just working in silos, our capacity doubles.”

At Albina Head Start in Northeast Portland, where hundreds of preschoolers read with SMART volunteers and receive books from SMART and Children’s Book Bank each year, executive director Ron Herndon also gave a thumbs up to the merger.

“They should be more effective in achieving their goals of enhancing literacy for children and families that really need that kind of help,” he said.

A key benefit of the organizations’ work is that it results in peer role modeling, Herndon said.

“One child sees another one reading a book, most of the time they want to participate in the reading and to acquire this skill, or at least act like they know to read,” he said.

Herndon also said both nonprofits have made a point of supplying culturally specific books to Albina Head Start’s diverse student body.

“That has been very, very helpful,” he said. “For our families, it has been extraordinarily important.”

Marc Kane, a SMART Reading volunteer in Klamath Falls in southern Oregon who’s received regional and statewide “volunteer of the year” honors, said he was excited to hear about the possible expansion of Children’s Book Bank services to the area, in addition to the books being distributed with the assistance of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library there.

“I needed some remedial help with reading as a young person,” said Kane, executive director of the Klamath Basin Senior Citizens’ Center. “So the whole (SMART) program for me is sort of a pay-it-forward program and I’m very passionate about the importance of reading.”

“If we can get more books in more kids’ hands, way to go, no better thing than that.”

awang@oregonian.com; Twitter: @ORAmyW

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