In the United States, the ratio of high-quality, age-appropriate books in low-income communities is one for every 300 children, facilitating a learning gap between privileged and underprivileged students. Antonette Franceschi-Chavez and Marysol Perez, both educators in the greater Los Angeles area, one of the most economically and culturally diverse areas in the country, have spent the past two years placing age-appropriate books in the hands of children in an attempt to keep the learning gap from growing.
Franceschi-Chavez and Perez met eight years ago while teaching in a predominantly low-income area. Having experienced schools in both lower and higher income areas, they immediately realized the struggles their students’ families and colleagues faced to access high-quality texts at different reading levels, a non-issue in more affluent areas. After years of discussion, they decided three years ago that they had to do something.
Combining their education skills and shared passion for advocacy and supporting under-represented communities, the two women founded Equity Through Literacy, an organization that provides parents and families with the resources needed to bridge the literacy gap.
After a great deal of planning, organizing and researching, Equity Through Literacy was set to launch in the spring of 2020. At the onset of the pandemic, they were forced to pivot and focus on the immediate needs of children forced to school from home.
Since May of last year, Franceschi-Chavez and Perez have distributed over 6,000 new or like-new books and 2,500 backpacks with books, school supplies and PPE to children in pre-K through 12th grade in under-resourced communities.
“We’re all expected to read and write right off the bat, but what we fail to realize is if we don’t have the resources available to us, we feel disempowered,” Perez said. “It’s so much harder to catch up when you don’t have the proper tools as a child. It impacts your entire life on a large scale.”
Equity Through Literacy is also committed to ensuring that families are equipped with the tools needed to support their children in building their reading, writing and expression skills. A big part of that is providing children in Spanish-speaking homes with bilingual resources. By empowering families through their native language, they are able to create deeper connections at home and more valuable learning opportunities.
“I think that’s such a powerful thing, to be able to provide a family with the resources that they need to empower them and let them know that they have the tools already in them, it’s just a matter of seeking out ways to bring that to life,” Perez said.
The two teachers said that many of the parents they work with are under the impression that if children are reading in English at school, they should be at home too, which creates a disconnect. Equity Through Literacy pushes families to embrace the cultural significance of experiencing another language and culture to build on language skills in a first or second language.
“We want to make sure parents understand that there’s value in reading to them in their native language,” Franceschi-Chavez said. “We try to remind them that it’s important to speak to their children in Spanish and to read to them in Spanish to broaden their language skills, and to teach them how fluent readers speak. You’re being an example of what a reader looks like to your child.”
After establishing literacy as an anchor, the women were able to expand their focus to other needs, such as emotional wellness. They have planned two wellness days, collaborating with community partners and organizations that can provide different resources for mental health. The first wellness day featured six partners, and the upcoming wellness day will feature 14, showing how successfully the program is growing.
Wellness days connect activities such as art and sports to literacy for children as young as two, building the valuable vocabulary and abilities needed to express emotions and care for mental health as adults. Franceschi-Chavez reflected on a moment she observed between a family at an art workshop where children were asked to read a story and create an art piece based on how the theme of the story made them feel. She observed this family engage in beautiful conversation about what emotions were brought out and how colors can represent those emotions.
“That’s what we’re preparing them to do, to take a crayon and a blank piece of paper at home and talk to their children about their feelings and let them draw it out or color it and let them express it and just have that conversation to keep from bottling the feelings in,” Franceschi-Chavez said.
Establishing Equity Through Literacy has been a long road, but through the help of community partners and the unwavering passion of Franceschi-Chavez and Perez, the organization has helped thousands of families.
“The Pollination Project was our first real grant, so it sparked everything from there. We’re very grateful for the support,” Franceschi-Chavez said.
“It definitely gave us a reason to keep going,” Perez added. “Oftentimes the work that we do can take a toll, and The Pollination Project provided us with a little boost to keep going.”
Before receiving a grant from The Pollination Project, they were relying entirely on book drives to gather supplies, and they often received unengaging, tattered, or non-age appropriate books. The grant allowed them to purchase high-quality books in both Spanish and English to distribute.
Franceschi-Chavez and Perez are committed to continuing to supply families with the resources needed to close the literacy gap, and hope to inspire others to do the same. They also hope to help the next generation of advocates grow.
“Marysol and I, one of the things I think we have grown from as parents, is instilling the same sense of giving community for our children,” Franceschi-Chavez said. Her four-year-old son has a “plethora of books,” and they’ve had valuable conversations about how other children may not be as lucky.
“We’re already starting these conversations with our little ones to try and create a next generation of agents of change.”