New Florida program delivers free books for struggling elementary school readers

30,000 families enrolled after a sign-up period opened Oct. 12

This image shows a collection of books by Beverly Cleary on Friday, March 26, 2021, at a home in Altadena, Calif. The beloved children's author, whose characters Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins enthralled generations of youngsters, has died. She was 104. Cleary's publisher, HarperCollins, announced her death Friday. In a statement, the company said Cleary died in Carmel, Calif., her home since the 1960s, on Thursday. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Anthony McCartney) (Anthony Mccartney, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A state-backed program designed to help struggling elementary-school readers by delivering free books to their homes is set to start shipping books next month, and eligible families are being encouraged to sign up.

The New Worlds Reading Initiative is a more than $200 million investment by the state to boost literacy in students who read below grade level. Lawmakers passed a bill (HB 3) to create and fund the program during this spring’s legislative session, fulfilling a priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure in July.

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The University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning, which was chosen to administer the program, has distributed to school districts about 700,000 fliers that include information on how to sign up for book delivery. The districts provide data to the university to identify eligible students based on reading scores.

An estimated 545,000 Florida families will qualify to receive books, according to the Lastinger Center. Families that sign up will receive nine books a year through the program, meaning the program could deliver up to 5 million books annually.

So far, about 30,000 families have enrolled after a sign-up period opened on Oct. 12.

“Our goal is to get the word out to as many families as possible. We know that there are over 500,000 eligible students in our state who would qualify for participation in this program,” Shaunte Duggins, the program’s assistant director at the Lastinger Center, told The News Service of Florida in an interview Monday.

To be eligible, students in kindergarten through fifth-grade must be identified as “having a substantial deficiency” in reading based on standardized test scores and other performance benchmarks.

The book-delivery program aims to help tackle an issue that lawmakers and top education officials see as a key to young students’ success as they later move into high school and potentially higher education. The House Education & Employment Committee heard a presentation Tuesday about how the program is being carried out.

“I want to remind the committee, too, that the reason that we’re doing this is because right now, on average, 43 percent of children in Florida in third grade are not reading on third-grade reading level,” said Rep. Dana Trabulsy, a Fort Pierce Republican who sponsored the bill during the spring session.

According to the Lastinger Center, more than 50 percent of third- through fifth-grade students are eligible in 22 of Florida’s 67 counties. The three districts with the largest numbers of eligible students are Miami-Dade County at more than 31,200, Broward County at 25,000 and Hillsborough County at more than 23,600.

Three rural North Florida school districts have the highest percentages of students eligible to receive the free books. About 74 percent of Gadsden County students are eligible, followed by 70 percent in Jefferson County and 69 percent in Hamilton County.

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran highlighted efforts to boost third-grade reading scores during a speech to the Florida Chamber of Commerce last week.

“It is the single most important, in my opinion, crisis point that has to be fixed if we’re going to survive for another 200 years” as a nation, Corcoran said. “And all things go to that singular point.”

Enrollment for the New Worlds Reading Initiative is being offered online at the program’s website. But the Lastinger Center also hopes to reach eligible families who may not have access to the internet.

“Beyond this year, we plan to offer paper-based enrollment to make sure that we’re getting access to all the families that may have trouble accessing this online,” Lastinger Center Director Phillip Poekert told lawmakers Tuesday.

The program also hopes to reach students who are homeless or transient and migrant families.

Duggins said the program’s goal for recipients of the free books is to help build a “home library” that will encourage students to read with parents or guardians.

“There’s nothing like reading with a hard-copy book,” Duggins told the News Service. “We know from the research that when families engage in literacy-specific activities with their kids ... there are impacts on their achievement.”

Parents are asked during the sign-up process to give a students’ reading preferences by topics and genres, such as fiction or nonfiction, to tailor books to the students’ interests.

The state is contracting with children’s book publisher Scholastic to provide the books, and Poekert said Florida became the company’s “biggest customer” through the agreement.

“They (Scholastic) won on the merits, in terms of our confidence in their ability to deliver against this pretty high-profile and very fast-moving initiative, to be able to serve at a large scale,” Poekert said of the Lastinger Center’s contracting process.

Interested families can register here.


About the Author:

Ryan Dailey is a reporter with experience in print and radio, having covered state and local news in Tallahassee since 2014. A graduate of Florida State University, Dailey has been a resident of the capital city since 2012. He joined the News Service of Florida in 2021, reporting with a focus on education and education policy.