I was blown away by Heather Reisman’s presentation, even though I already knew a bit about the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, and I certainly knew about the (mostly sad) state of school libraries in Canada.
Reisman outlined the beginnings of the Foundation, when she visited Church St. School in Toronto in 2003. “What I discovered when I opened the door,” she said, “took my breath away.” There were lots of shelves, but few books; the books they did have had an average age of between 18-30 years old. School budgets, Reisman learned, were so tight that purchasing textbooks, toner for the photocopiers or even Band-Aids for nursing stations was proving a challenge for schools. The principal of the school, Judy, admitted it was “all she could do to maintain her half-time librarian and make a few acquisitions in a school year.” For Reisman, who learned to read at age 3 ½, this was unbelievable. She immediately invited Judy to Indigo and told her to buy everything she needed. Judy came, accompanied by students and teachers; none of the children who came to the store that day had ever been to a bookstore before. With these new acquisitions, Judy described to Reisman how the school “went from being a sad place, to being the absolute hub of the school.” Reisman added, “the overall energy of school changed, and student performance and test scores for Grades 3 and 6 improved.
This was the impetus for Reisman to establish the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation. Her work with the Foundation has “opened her eyes to the extent to which we are failing the economically disadvantaged children of this country” and “the extent to which we undervalue teachers and educators.” As Reisman observed, we are systematically widening the gap between haves and have nots; schools in wealthier areas are able to organise fundraisers to provide materials for their school libraries, whereas schools in more impoverished areas cannot do this. “You can't bake sale your way out of this problem!,” declared Reisman. Children at these schools are also doubly deprived, as they are the children more likely to not have books in their homes, either.
Reisman concluded by re-iterating that, if nothing else, “enlightened self interest should make us want to tackle this problem,” since a 1% increase in the average literacy rate of Canadians could generate a 2.5% growth, up to 18.4 billion Canadian dollars in additional money in the Canadian economy. "In my world, we would day this is a very high return on a very small investment," Reisman concluded.
Reisman showed us several excellent videos about the Foundation’s work, with other statistics about early literacy, education, poverty, and student success (38% of Grade 3 students are failing reading; in the 1970s, school library budgets provided for 3 books per child per year, whereas now they provide for less than 1/3 of a book per child per year). One video is online here.