Star City Reads Will Distribute Books at Fall Festival

Star City Reads volunteers with some of the books being unloaded for the upcoming ferstival.

A program that has helped Roanoke win two of its seven All American City Awards from the National Civic League is in full swing this month. It’s Star City Reads, a collaboration between the Roanoke Public Library system, city public schools and other partners, with the goal of getting third graders to read well at that level.

Sheila Umberger, director of libraries for Roanoke City, said the five year old program has received 40,000 donated books that will be distributed at the Goodwill Industries location on Melrose Avenue – which will be the new and much larger location for the Melrose Branch public library as of next year.

“There’s only about four communities in the country that have had this opportunity,” said Umberger of the donation from an organization called First Books.

For some perspective, the Raleigh Court library branch holds 32,000 books, less than will be given away to youngsters on the first weekend in October. That’s also when the Star City Reads Fall Festival takes place on the 7th at Goodwill, with bands, a bouncy house, petting zoo, vendors and Roanoke police officers grilling hot dogs for everyone. Then people can go pick out some children’s books to take home – often to homes where there are relatively few books.

Some of those donated books will be distributed later in schools. Those more well off may have children who have owned several hundred books by the time they go to kindergarten said Umberger – those from lower income or other at-risk households may only have owned about ten books. “[So] their vocabulary is not as developed as a child.”

Umberger was seeking volunteers to help pull those 40,000 books off a tractor-trailer in three hours, then to sort them by type before they are distributed via a voucher system where kids and their parents will show up, receive a coupon and pick the allotted number of books. “We want to make this a literacy-rich activity for our community, as well as support our partners that are reading to children and are working with children every day.”

When construction is completed at the Goodwill location, the Melrose library branch will more than double in size from about 6200 square feet to around 15,000. The design and community meetings have been completed; once the Williamson Road branch reopens (soon) after its makeover, work on the Melrose location will commence.

The Star City Reads plan to improve reading scores in the Roanoke Valley was the basis for the All American City Award in 2012. This June the latest honor was based on metrics that show the program has made a difference in improving third grade reading scores that Umberger said are a key to success in school and beyond. Tests show reading comprehension scores among 3rd grade students in the city have gone up 12 percent – higher in some schools. “Roanoke has won [the All American City award] more than any other community in the country,” noted Umberger, “but we still want to continue our work.”

Putting books into the hands of children is a main goal, said Umberger. Roanoke City libraries have worked with 27 partners and scores of volunteers to improve reading scores since 2012. “It’s better to work together and then look at the data and see if we’re working on the right things. Our scores and success shows that we are on the right path. But we never want to let up. What’s really important is that our children are doing so much better on third grade reading tests and are doing better in school.”

See the Star City Facebook page if you would like to volunteer for the program.

Gene Marrano