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| 2 min read | by Lonnie Huhman, lhuhman@thesuntimesnews.com |

Bringing kids and communities together through books and reading is the aim of the new program called “BookPALS,” which is a partnership between Dexter’s Anchor Elementary School and Erickson, Holmes and Estabrook Elementary in Ypsilanti.

“We’re really excited about this because we believe it’s a great way to bring students and their different schools together,” Anchor Elementary Principal Craig McCalla said at the kick-off assembly on Oct. 3.

Anchor Elementary Principal Craig McCalla read the children’s book, “The Very Last Castle” during the kick-off assembly for the new community partnership program, BookPALS.

In explaining the program, supported by a grant from Dexter Rotary, McCalla was joined by the other partner and organizer of the program, the Children’s Literacy Network-CLN, which is based in Ann Arbor.

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Betsy Durant, executive director of the Children’s Literacy Network, said the program was inspired by the concept of pen-pals, but with books. She said it employs an evidence-based Peer Assisted Learning Strategy “PALS” to advance children’s reading and language skills while “building bridges between students who come from very different socioeconomic communities and cultural backgrounds.”

“We’re excited about this as well,” said Durant. “It really is about connecting communities.”

She said the program aims to provide the varied backgrounds and neighborhoods an exceptional opportunity to interact with each other. It connects across existing racial and socioeconomic gaps-enhancing and entwining academic and social growth, building bridges between students and extending them into the wider Washtenaw community.

She said it’s also about increasing oral reading practice for students in order to promote the development of fluency, vocabulary and comprehension skills.

McCalla said the students will be paired with peers from another school and then each month a “BookPAL” picks a book, practices reading with a trained volunteer mentor, records themselves reading on a tablet, writes a letter and answers questions about themselves. These books and letters are delivered to the paired school, recordings viewed and the whole process repeated.

At the kick-off assembly at Anchor, McCalla read the children’s book, “The Very Last Castle,” which afterward each second-grader got a copy of to take home. He said the message of the book was a good one to think about as they went ahead with the new program.

The book is about a curious little girl, who watches the man who guards the last castle in town.

“Every time she passes by him, she tries to catch his eye,” the website, GoodReads, describes the book. “While the other townspeople fear what may be locked up inside the mysterious castle, the girl finally gets up the courage to knock on the door and find out what’s really behind the gate. A story about overcoming fear of the unknown, trying new things, and reaching out to make new friends…”

McCalla and Durant both said it’s their hope that over the school year that friendships and home libraries grow, along with their love of reading.

BookPALS wraps up in May when the students from each school gather together for a celebration day where everyone meets in person, participates in a final book reading/exchange, and enjoys fun activities together. 

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