Riverview Elementary School's library makes the case for books

Mikel Bittner, 4, of Lansdowne, stops by Riverview Elementary with her mom, Shannon Bittner to borrow a few books on a Thursday morning.
Mikel Bittner, 4, of Lansdowne, stops by Riverview Elementary with her mom, Shannon Bittner to borrow a few books on a Thursday morning. (Photo by Nicole Munchel)

In April, Riverview Elementary School opened a new library. It wasn't full of the latest technology or state-of-the-art reading spaces. It didn't even have its own designated room.

But for the parents and guardians of students at Riverview Elementary, the library was perfect.


For the first time, the school opened a lending library up to parents so that they could take new books out to read with their kids.

"They're pretty quick with it and they get you in and out," said Eugene Johnson Jr., a father of three whose 7-year-old son attends Riverview.


In fact, he said, the only gripe he and his son have with the library is the program's two-book limit. At the rate his family has been tearing through the books they take out from the library, Johnson said, two is nothing.

Although the library has been in operation twice a week since April, it is still very much a work in progress, said Bonnie Block, a retired Riverview teacher who co-founded the program.

"We call it a blossoming project," Block said.

Along with retired substitute teacher Mary Patterson, Block leads the parent library at Riverview, setting up and organizing bins full of family-friendly books for parents to browse through and select from.


The goal, she said, is to get parents and children reading together.

As of now, the library includes just 125 books and is housed in bins stacked on rolling carts. Still, its goal is being accomplished every time a parents stops by to pick out a book.

Not only does time spent reading with a parent or parent figure help strengthen a child's reading and language skills, Block said, but it also helps strengthen the relationship between the adult and child.

When she last taught at Riverview almost 30 years ago, Block, who was a kindergarten teacher, said students from the fifth grade would come to her classroom to read Dr. Seuss books because, without access to books at home or parents reading to them at night, many had never read Dr. Seuss.

Riverview Elementary, a Title I school, has the highest percentage of children living in poverty of any school in Baltimore County. With more than 93 percent of children living at or below the poverty line, many students' homes don't have books laying around for parents to read with their kids, Block said.

Many more don't have any books at all. That, Block said, is where the school steps in.

In the winter, the school was awarded a $500 grant by First Book, a national non-profit which seeks to end illiteracy in the United States and Canada. The money was immediately put toward the purchase of books that would be enjoyable for both parents and their children.

"It took some time to determine exactly what would suit our parents," said Mary Maddox, principal at Riverview. But "this has really taken off like a rocket."

While some Title I schools used the initiative requiring that they engage parents more in their children's' learning to purchase and provide parent figures with parenting resource books, Riverview staff thought students and families would be best served by books that are fun and easy for everyone in the family to read.

Giving students the opportunity to have books in their home and see their parents engaging in reading has huge potential to impact a child's development, Maddox said.

"We have become their community," Maddox said of Riverview's students and their families.

With mobility and access to reliable transportation often an issue for many in the community, she added, "this is a way of bringing the library to them."

Johnson, along with many other parents who came across the library over the course of the past couple months while dropping off his child at school, appreciates the convenience of Riverview's parent library.

He wanders over to the makeshift library each week after dropping his son off at school.

Joined by his youngest daughter, who is too young to attend school, he picks out a book that the two think the family would like and brings it home.

"My son, he likes the Curious George books," Johnson said. "Basically that's all he gets."

The other day, Johnson said his son made a comment about the parent library that library organizers would be happy to hear. "He said to me, 'I wish they had it every day.'," Johnson recounted.

Although the Lansdowne library is less than a mile from the school, Johnson said he prefers to use the school's new library. With no fees and brand-new books, the experience is more enjoyable. Plus, he said, he's at the school anyway.

The school had a parent room for a period, but when a small fire damaged a Riverview classroom, the group was forced to utilize whatever open space they could find.

The result, Block said, has been even better than if the library had been run out of a permanent room.

Now, Block said "it's right in their face, and the kids see it."

"I appreciate it," said Jessica Schaal, whose daughter is a second-grader at Riverview. Schaal said she has watched her daughter become more interested in reading now that her mother brings books home for her.

Trina Moses, another Riverview parent, volunteers regularly with the library and takes a pair of books home with her each time. "I got two books out now for him," she said.

She and her second-grade son usually read the books together, she said, but the other day, "he turned around and he was reading them out. A couple of them he was having trouble with, so I read to him."

Involved in a number of different parent volunteer roles, Moses said she enjoys the opportunity the borrowed books give her to monitor her son's learning.

She often encourages him to read out loud to her, she said, and his proficiency has grown enormously in this year alone. Last week, she let him pick the book himself as a reward for getting to school early.

Block and Patterson stress that the community's support of the initiative has been instrumental in allowing the library to operate.

Home Depot is currently building a mechanism for volunteers to store the books in that would replace the rolling carts they library is currently using, and the local McDonald's franchise has provided coupons for a free hamburger for each book a parent returns.

Even though the program has largely been a success, Block said, there is still a lot organizers would like to accomplish.

First and foremost, they need more books written in Spanish to cater to the school's large Spanish-speaking parent base, she said.

"It's about spending quality time with your kid," Block said. "I don't care if you can't read. Just look at the pictures."