NEA’s Read Across America Kicks Off in South Texas
By Brenda Álvarez
Life in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas is relatively quiet. It’s a family-oriented area, where much of the excitement surrounds local football or basketball games. On Monday, Feb. 24, however, students from two elementary schools in Hidalgo County received a special treat from local, state and national guests, who read books from the beloved author Dr. Seuss. The event was part of the 17th anniversary of the National Education Association’s award-winning Read Across America literacy program.
The first stop on the tour was to M. Rivas Elementary School in Donna, Tex., which serves more than 600 students. One look down the school halls would give anyone a clear indication that students and school staff are serious about reading. Walls are plastered with posters promoting super star readers who are turning pages and have a goal of reading one million words for the school year.
Guest readers at Rivas were NEA Executive Committee Member Princess Moss, who read The Cat in the Hat, as well as State Board of Education representative Ruben Cortez and Texas State Rep. Armando Martinez who tagged team to read Green Eggs and Ham. Other special guests included Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) President Rita Haecker, TSTA Vice President Noel Candelaria, and several Donna Independent School District school board members.
Principal Gregorio Arrellano says, “We need to get students excited about learning, and it all starts with reading,” emphasizing that programs like NEA’s Read Across America add energy to existing reading initiatives and show students they have the support of outside groups.
Brissia Quintanilla, a kindergarten student, shared, “I like to read because it’s fun and my favorite book is The Cat in the Hat,” which worked out well because she, along with over 200 other students who participated in the reading event at Rivas received their own copy, along with toothbrushes and other goodies like tooth timers to keep them reading and brushing at home.
For a second consecutive year, Read Across America events and activities have been sponsored by Renaissance Dental. Recent studies have found that American students miss 51 million hours of school every year due to oral health problems. This translates to students missing critical instruction time; especially in early grades where reading skills are a focus—and students who don’t read at grade level are four times more likely to drop out than those who do.
In Donna, which is less than ten miles from the U.S.-Mexican border, resources are limited. In fact, the nearest book store is a thirty-minute drive outside of town.
Haecker says that “people in south Texas don’t have access to a lot of libraries or books, and the association has taken a leadership position on this issue and is working to bring in as many resources as we can to help our students.”
Day one of the tour ended at Jefferson Elementary School in Edinburg, where 300 K-5 students received the same special treatment. On hand were special guests Texas State Rep. Terry Canales, who led students in a reader’s oath of promising to read each day and each night, and local meteorologist Tim Smith who read Green Eggs and Ham.
“We’re honored we were chosen,” says Raul Gonzalez, referring to NEA’s Read Across America program coming the school. “Our kids love to read but we have a problem in that our library was built to hold 10,000 books and we have 13,000 books in stock—this is a good problem to have, but we’re hoping to expand our library.”
Each school received a $500 check for its library. At Jefferson, this will help with the expansion of the library, says Gonzalez. In Rivas, librarian Salina Villaneda says she plans to use the check to update the library. “We are an old school and we have an outdated library…that’s one of the things I want to do with the grant is to buy new books.”
“I’m delighted we’re here to bring the gift of reading,” Moss says. “What we know is that reading is the foundation of success in other subject areas and we want to make sure we put books in the hands of every student because many don’t have access to them at home.”