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Book smarts: Two nonprofits join forces to increase reading in kids   

The nonprofit BookSmiles gives away thousands of new or gently-used books a year to kids with limited access to reading material. But because of a recently announced partnership, it will likely give away thousands more.

BookSmiles will now work with the New Jersey Tutoring Corps (NJTC) – a statewide tutoring program that serves K-8 students – to get more free books into the hands of more kids, according to a release announcing the joint effort. The arrangement is also expected to offset the approximately $50,000 a year the NJTC spends for materials and books for its students, allowing more funding to go directly to instruction.

The NJTC was established in 2022 by First Lady Tammy Murphy as a response to learning gaps worsened by COVID, notes the release. New Jersey Student Learning Assessments (NJSLA) for 2022 showed that 64.6% of the state’s students were not meeting grade-level expectations in math, 51.1% in English Language Arts, according to a 2023 NJ Education Report.

“We don’t like to use learning loss because it indicates that scholars – and we refer to our students as scholars – did not learn anything, and that’s not true,” said Katherine Bassett, CEO of the state initiative. “They learned a lot. They just didn’t learn a lot about their academics, necessarily. So, we refer to them as learning gaps.”

Since the NJTC launched its initial pilot program in 2022 in six counties – including Camden – the percentage of students performing at grade level in the NJSLA increased by 16% to 40% in math and 23% to 40% in literacy. The nonprofit now has nearly 80 locations in 18 counties, with a staff of about 400 serving more than 3,600 kids just this school year, about 10,000 in all, according to its website. 

NJTC’s paid tutors work in afterschool settings and in private sessions during the summer, and are often embedded throughout classrooms during the school day. Its small-group sessions in those settings range from 30 to 60 minutes.

As for BookSmiles, the pandemic only accelerated growth, according to its website. 

Founder Larry Abrams once stored thousands of titles in his classroom and garage before opening the first BookSmiles Book Bank in Cherry Hill in 2019. He has since given away about two million titles. The organization – which also benefits Philadelphia kids – now occupies a 43,300-square-foot warehouse in Pennsauken. 

Of his new partnership, Abrams had this to say, according to the release: “To battle the inequity seen in the state’s public education system, we must find ways to work together and scale the clear solutions we have built on the local level. In the short time of their (NJTC’s) existence, they have quickly become a powerful and profoundly effective anchor of change in New Jersey.”

For its part, the NJTC has a strategic plan that includes “innovative partnerships” with other organizations like BookSmiles to address what it calls “core learning challenges” in New Jersey. 

“NJTC’s partnership with BookSmiles continues our efforts to provide greater opportunity for all New Jersey public school students,’” Bassett noted. “This new relationship will serve scholars who need the support of books in the home while dramatically strengthening our organization and infrastructure.”

Sound like government speak? Sure. But think of it this way: Putting more books in little hands will help nurture a generation of readers.

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