Eight elementary schools receive grants for books to help struggling readers impacted by the pandemic

The Karen Thomas grants recognize the increased need for literacy funding due to the strains placed on teachers and students by Covid-19

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

A total of $18.835 has been awarded to fund nine teacher grants at eight AAPS elementary schools, thanks to the Karen Thomas grants for 2021-22.

Named for the late wife of former AAPS Board of Education Trustee Andy Thomas, the fund since has provided grants for elementary school programs and projects that promote literacy, support academic retention, and supply reading materials for media centers.

An additional $1,000 was awarded, based on a Karen Thomas Grant application, thanks to a contribution by Wacker Chemical Company, for a total of $19,835 to support literacy efforts. This is the highest single-year amount awarded by the Karen Thomas Memorial Fund. It recognizes the increased need for literacy funding due to the strains placed on teachers and students by COVID, and the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on struggling readers.

Dicken’s Social Justice Read Aloud Library was begun at the end of the last school year with funds donated by the PTO. A grant from the Karen Thomas Fund will add books to the collection.

Thomas noted that this year, the Karen Thomas Fund is focusing on our most vulnerable early readers.

“The pandemic has been hard on all students, but especially those who do not have a lot of resources to support reading,” he says. “I reached out specifically to our wonderful building literacy experts and media specialists to encourage them to come up with innovative proposals to reach striving learners. The main theme of their efforts is the use of “decodable books”, texts that are composed mainly of words which can be easily sounded out phonetically, but which are also interesting and fun to read.”

Seven schools—Abbot, Allen, A2 STEAM, Angell, Bryant, Dicken, and King—requested funds to support decodable books. Four BLEs collaborated in writing the grant “Reaching Every Reader” and this resulted in a proposal that supports the district’s reading intervention program, as well as  K-2 classroom teachers as they help striving readers increase their skills.

“We also supported a grant at Haisley School in their collaboration with Peace Neighborhood Center to provide quality books for underserved kids,” says Thomas. “We funded a grant for Dicken Elementary School to support their social justice “read aloud” initiative. And, thanks to a generous contribution from Wacker Chemical Company, we supplied Bryant Elementary School with a wide range of culturally diverse chapter books, targeting underserved and marginalized groups.”

Thomas says he wants to acknowledge all the teachers who submitted grant applications. “Unfortunately, there were many worthy proposals which we were unable to fund,” he says. “Thanks also to the generosity of the Ann Arbor community which made this possible.”

Lauren York, Dicken Elementary School teacher Lauren York said she’s thrilled to use the Karen Thomas Grant to grow Dicken’s Social Justice Read Aloud Library.

“The grant will be used to purchase a collection of multicultural, anti-bias children’s books that all teachers, Y5-5, can use in their classrooms,” she says. “Our hope is that this project will provide students with frequent access to quality literature that affirms students’ identity and fosters positive attitudes towards diversity.”

Contributions to the Karen Thomas Fund can be made through the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation at AAACF.org. Use the “Find A Specific Fund” tool, then search for and select “Karen Thomas Fund.”  

Here are the winners of the Karen Thomas grants for 2021-22:

Kathleen Gibson, Haisley Elementary School: “Striving Readers Classroom Library Project.”

Maggi Rohde, Bryant Elementary School: “Beginning Chapter Books for Equity and Diversity.” This project was submitted through the Karen Thomas Fund, but was awarded a grant from Wacker Chemical Company.

Kristina Rossi, Dicken Elementary School: “Decodable Books for Dicken Elementary School.”

Emily Wark, Abbot Elementary School: “Diverse, Engaging and Aligned Decodables to Support Striving Readers with Foundational Reading Skills.”

Lauren York, Dicken Elementary School: “Social Justice Read Aloud Library.”

Amanda Bohle (Allen Elementary School), Patricia Guest (A2 STEAM), Kelly House (Bryant Elementary School), and Katherine Russell (Angell Elementary School and King Elementary School): “Reaching Every Reader.”

This is a collaboration by building literacy experts at five AAPS schools. It involves the use of “decodable” books, which can be read by sounding out most of the words rather than memorizing words that frequently appear in texts, or by guessing at words by looking at the illustrations. Traditional phonetic books have been around for a long time, but they tend to be bland, uninvolving, and just plain boring.

The new generation of decodable books is designed to heighten reader involvement by presenting diverse, relatable stories: “Books they love to read with words they can read.”

Books purchased through the grant will include both fiction and informational texts to give students opportunities to develop their reading skills while nurturing their curiosity about the world. The intent is to help striving readers make the most progress, while also developing a love of reading. Because using decodable texts would be a new practice for classroom teachers, the BLEs will coach teachers in learning how to use these texts within small groups.

“We are over-the-moon to receive funding from the Karen Thomas Foundation to purchase diverse and engaging decodable texts for our students! These books give students an opportunity to apply letter-sound knowledge in texts that use the specific letter sounds that students have learned; that means more successful decoding for students and less struggling through words with unfamiliar sounds.  We’re thrilled to receive this valuable collection of resources that will support all of our Bryant Tigers in building a solid reading foundation.”

Kelly House, BLE, Bryant Elementary

By using high-quality texts, the project will help students develop comprehension skills such as story retelling, inferring character feelings, and sharing opinions about a text, while also building knowledge in the areas of science and social studies. This will provide a bridge to access the more challenging grade-level texts traditionally available.

The four BLEs searched far and wide to find the most interesting, engaging decodable texts, and found them in a rather unexpected source: Australia. The “Little Learners Love Literacy” program from “down under” offers a wide range of characters representing different cultural backgrounds.

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