When it comes to literacy, the nation’s poorest children face daunting prospects as they attempt to keep pace with their wealthier peers. The literacy nonprofit First Book estimates that low-income students today make up more than half of the population in public schools nationwide. At the same time, 23 states are investing less than they did in education 10 years ago.

As a result, the U.S. government disburses $14.3 billion annually to schools with low-income students via Title 1, a provision within the landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the largest source of federal funding for public schools. That money is allocated through Title 1 grants, and while much of it is spent in straightforward ways, a growing number of booksellers are partnering with Title 1 schools—where at least 40% of students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals—to foster long-term literacy initiatives that surpass traditional efforts.

Defining Need and Taking Action

More than 10 million children receive Title 1 funds, and the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 25 million children benefit from the program, because the money is frequently spent on schoolwide programs.

Angie Tally has had direct experience working in Title 1 schools. When she was working as a first- and third-grade teacher, and then a counselor at the Episcopal Day School in Southern Pines, N.C., Tally quickly recognized the importance of books in the lives of her students. “Books were the vehicles that could bridge the gap between isolation and experience, between ignorance and understanding, and between despair and possibility,” she says.

Eighteen years ago, Tally changed careers and began working as the children’s department manager at the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines. In the bookstore, she saw connections between bookselling and her work as an educator that fed a desire to create programs in local schools. When the bookstore was purchased in 2010 by the Pilot, a regional newspaper, the new owners expressed particular enthusiasm and support for Tally’s interest in working with Title 1 schools in the area.

That year, the Country Bookshop arranged for Penguin Young Readers Group to send actor and children’s author Henry Winkler to Aberdeen Elementary, a Title 1 school. Unlike many school author visits, where books are offered for sale after the event, Tally persuaded the school to instead use Title 1 funds to purchase a copy of the book for every student.

The results were galvanizing. “Incredible things happened,” Tally says. “Every student had a book. There were no haves and have-nots. Literary conversations ensued in the homes, in the classrooms, even in the hallways. Teachers reported students carrying books around like precious treasures.”

The Bedrock: Author Events

The most common way that booksellers are working with Title 1 schools is through the cosponsorship of author events. Since Tally hosted Winkler in 2010, she has coordinated dozens more events with regional schools. Like Tally, Cecilia Cackley is also a former educator; she now works as the children’s buyer and event coordinator at East City Bookshop in Washington, D.C., where she arranges between 15 and 20 school-partnered events per year.

Roughly one-quarter of East City’s school partnerships are with Title 1 schools, including a local international school. But instead of bringing authors to the students, Cackley had the students come to the authors at the bookstore. At one event, students met with author Elizabeth Acevedo, and at another they met Laurie Halse Anderson.

“It was just so special,” Cackley says. “They love getting to interact with authors outside of school and on their own instead of in a big group, so we try and make that happen as much as possible.”

Like the Country Bookshop, East City eschews the more common book purchase model for such events. The store ensures that each student receives a book, and if Title 1 funds cannot be used for it, they typically arrange for the support of a community member or local business.

Though Title 1 designations tell Cackley a bit about a school’s student population, each one has its own constraints, challenges, and freedoms as a business partner for the bookstore. Much of Cackley’s work with schools is in determining what those differences are, and learning to work with them.

Across the board, she says that scheduling is the most difficult aspect of working with school partners. “Schools have so many requirements with testing and that kind of thing, and getting on a calendar isn’t always easy, especially when publishers don’t tell us very far in advance that an author is going to be in town.”

To East City’s booksellers, the challenges are unequivocally worth it because of the payoffs. “Schools are special partners because they help us reach many, many more kids than come into the shop each week on their own with their families,” Cackley says. Not only do they reach more children but the booksellers also learn what kids are interested in reading, which helps them back at the store.

There are also financial reasons the partnerships are beneficial for the bookstore. “Title 1 schools often have access to funds that can be spent on literacy events, which is great,” Cackley says. “The challenge is maintaining contacts in the school and making sure the partnership satisfies any special conditions or timeline for using that money.”

If anything, given Cackley’s experience, she says East City is looking to connect with a growing number of Title 1 schools to bring students into the store for programming. “I have big dreams that we’ll be able to schedule those kinds of experiences for all students soon.”

Bringing the Bookstore into the School

While Cackley is bringing students into East City Bookshop, Rebekah Shoaf of Boogie Down Books is bringing bookstores into schools in New York City. Shoaf left her career as an educational trainer and teacher in the N.Y.C. public schools to launch Boogie Down in 2018. She calls her store a “bookstore without walls” because it has no physical space, moving instead across the Bronx and Harlem to create tailored book experiences for community partners where they are.

One of those partners has been the Hamilton Grange School, a six-year-old middle school in Harlem. The school, which focuses on intensive literacy work with kids, was the brainchild of principal Benjamin Lev, who pushed for its creation after he saw that students were traveling 100 blocks to reach the next closest middle school in their district. Of the 360 students in the school, 97% are black and/or Latinx, and 92% qualify for free or reduced lunch, a key indicator for Title 1 designation.

By 2017, Hamilton Grange had emerged as a statewide leader in literacy education. The school was named the New York State Reward School for Progress after students made the most progress on statewide exams for any school in New York. The school spends heavily on literacy events, including the use of its Title 1 funds, partnering with organizations across the city.

With Shoaf, Lev has worked to bring a pop-up bookstore version of Boogie Down into the halls of the school on parent-teacher nights. While Lev acknowledges that the approach is “a little unorthodox,” he says the partnership with Shoaf is exactly what his school needs.

“You’ve got the Scholastic Book Fairs, which I always looked forward to in middle school,” Lev says, “but the difference with this is that Scholastic has this vast sea of books without this person—without Rebekah.” In advance of the pop-ups, Shoaf curates an entire list that is specifically designed for Hamilton Grange’s needs.

“It’s a different relationship,” Lev says. “She is so intent on cultivating this library of books, and she’s obviously so well-read, particularly with young adult literature, so it’s been easy to know that when we’ve asked her to come to our events, everything that’s being put in front of the kids is of high quality and will be beneficial to them.”

Though some may attribute a certain stigma to Title 1 schools, Shoaf says that her relationship with Hamilton Grange debunks stereotypes, and she emphasizes that the same is true for all of her school partners, which are all Title 1 schools. “Even though these schools do qualify as Title 1 schools, and it can mean that families have limited funds, when we do the pop-up bookshops, what we have found is that parents are super-excited and the events are successful,” Shoaf says. “We really can’t make assumptions about what families are and are not interested in.”

Putting Big Ideas into Practice

Back at the Country Bookshop in North Carolina, what began with a single event with Henry Winkler has become something much larger, thanks to a partnership that Angie Tally was able to forge with Sharon Castelli, then-assistant principal of the Aberdeen Elementary School, following the event. Nearly 10 years later, Tally and Castelli are pushing the boundaries of what Title 1 funding can mean for a literacy-focused partnership between booksellers and schools.

After organizing more author events with Castelli and other educators, in 2015 Tally decided to create a nonprofit in Moore County called Authors in Moore County Schools (AIMS). The nonprofit works as a liaison between the bookstore and the schools, and since its launch, it has provided 7,500 books to students at 55 author events across 25 schools in five counties.

Tally is able to find increased financial support for her work precisely because the Title 1 status of the schools is a trustworthy indicator of need for donors, who can then financially contribute tax-deductible donations to AIMS.

All the while, Tally has continued to partner with Castelli, who is now the literacy grant director for the Scotland County Schools. Seventy-five percent of students in Scotland County are in need of free or reduced lunch, and all students receive that assistance. In 2017, the area had an average median income of $32,739, just one year before it was ravaged by Hurricane Florence.

In 2019, Scotland County Schools received a $2.2 million federal grant from the Department of Education to provide books to thousands of students. As a result of their longstanding partnership, Castelli was able to immediately launch a series of initiatives working with Tally, and within the first six months of receiving the grant, they brought five authors to the public schools and provided a signed book to each student.

In addition to author events, the schools are putting in book vending machines, providing literacy support for children younger than five, giving books to new mothers, building Little Free Libraries with students, and launching a spring reading challenge, all in an effort to distribute books widely throughout the community.

Castelli says the importance of such work cannot be underestimated. “Researchers have noted the number of books that are in the home has a direct impact on literacy and education regardless of the educational level of their parents,” she notes. She draws parallels between this information and her personal experience growing up. “I can tell you that neither one of my parents completed high school, but we always had books everywhere, and we read those books over and over again.”

The Keys to a Successful Partnership

Like most federal programs, the intricacies of Title 1 funding can appear infinite and complex, the same way that many aspects of the book publishing industry can be confusing to nonprofessionals. The booksellers and educators who are at the forefront of trying to merge these two facets are hopeful that their efforts make both sides stronger as a result, but they emphasize that the bonds that lead to success are not forged in expertise as much as they are in a shared set of values and mutual respect.

Tally says that the fundamental purpose of the Country Bookshop’s work with Title 1 schools is “to share our resources and publisher contacts with local school and community partners.” Through Tally, the schools are able to find authors who are touring, or books that can be bought at a higher discount in bulk, and more easily navigate any other publisher-related issues.

However, the success of her work, Tally says, can be found in having a trusted collaborator in Castelli. They succeed, she says, “because we have a shared mission: to grow a love of reading in young children.”

Hamilton Grange principal Benjamin Lev adds that respect is the foundation of partnerships that can thrive in spite of how overwhelming the challenges of the kids in front of these booksellers and educators can be. He says that as he watched Shoaf unload heavy boxes of books from her car and bring them into the school one day, he thought to himself, “She left a 16-year career in teaching and all of the financial securities that affords to bring books to a million and a half people in the Bronx who didn’t have a bookstore? What she’s doing in this giant community, it’s a beautiful thing.”

See more of our Fall 2019 School & Library Spotlight here.