The Importance of Providing Books in High Poverty Classrooms

The Importance of Providing Books in High Poverty Classrooms
Updated on 16 July 2015

Guest post by Debra Hannula, J. D.

As the daughter of two retired public school teachers and an attorney for thirty years working on behalf of and representing the poor, the lack of proper books in high poverty schools is an issue that is near and dear to me.

Research shows that the amount of books students read affects their reading levels and their ability to perform well on standardized tests.

Studies repeatedly affirm that access to print materials directly relates to students experiencing life in a positive way—behaviorally, academically, and psychologically.

There is a constant supply of fantastic children’s and young-adult literature and numerous authors with the creativity to inspire and charm young readers! Yet, many classrooms are relegated to old, tattered, out-of-date books—not ones that students want to read, or teachers want to teach from.

With budget cuts across the country, access to books in high poverty classrooms continues to be a growing problem. The ratio of books to children in middle-income neighborhoods is about thirteen books per child, while the ratio of books to children in lower income neighborhoods is approximately one book to 300 children.

Esther Patrick, a close friend, social worker, and donor, says:

I grew up in nothing but ‘high poverty schools’ with few books at school and none at home. I grew up without the ability to read well, which still haunts me. My home-life was marred by domestic violence as a kid — how I would have loved to escape in a good book, like I do now as an adult.

Some well-intentioned donors and organizations attempt to help the problem by donating piles of used books. However, these used books are often not relevant to the teachers’ curriculums — with new Common Core Standards, teachers often need text sets of related titles, like a whole group of books on the Civil War. They are often also in mediocre shape or worse, and with titles and subject matters that are old-fashioned or unengaging. Schools have come to call these “book dumps.”

New not-for-profit organizations are attempting to remedy this by providing new books chosen by the teachers for their students with titles that are funny and engaging. For reluctant readers, a bright new book, specifically chosen by a teacher for them can make a huge difference to motivation.

One teacher I know hit the nail on the head: “It just takes one just right book to hook a student as a reader for life.”

Debra Hannula,

Debra Hannula is the co-executive director of, a site that uses micropatronage to solve book access problems in high-poverty schools. BookMentors connects teachers, librarians, and students in need of books with donors supporting literacy, reading, and education. Debra has worked as a public defender, a Judge Pro Tempore, and as the Director of Legal Services for a battered women’s shelter. She is also the chair of the Kelly Ann Brown Foundation of the Marin Community Foundation.

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