EAST COUNTY — Ted Lindenberg’s garage holds everything but his car — including 1,000 children’s books stacked in white shipping boxes beside his cleaning products, vacuum and chairs.
His neighbors see him organizing the books in his garage and often stop to admire his collection. “Look at all those books,” they say.
The books hold special meaning to Lindenberg. An active member of organizations such as the Literacy Council of Sarasota, he doesn’t have time for much recreational reading. But, he makes time for reading stories to children.
In October, the Lakewood Ranch resident and literacy chairman of the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch launched the Books for Kids Promoting Literacy program to help boost county students’ interest in reading and improve reading test scores.
“If you look at some county students’ scores on reading tests, they’re not very good,” Lindenberg said. “There’s room for improvement, and reading is such an important skill. With all the emphasis on tests, reading is becoming more important in testing, too.”
In 2014, 51% of county third-grade students were considered proficient in reading, which is 6% lower than the state average, said Michael Barber, spokesman for the Manatee County School District.
Lindenberg hopes to boost scores by providing more than just story time.
Monthly, 20 volunteers, who range from retirees, attorneys, bankers, and other members of the workforce, visit first-, second- and third-grade students at local schools.
Lindenberg has 35 years of experience as a principal, teacher and guidance counselor; he understands the importance of sparking students’ interest in reading at an early age.
“We really need to get them interested in reading when they’re at the elementary age level,” Lindenberg said. “Starting early is important.”
So far, Lindenberg and his volunteers just read to Oneco and Ballard elementary schools’ students, but he plans to expand into other schools, including Gene Witt Elementary.
“Books stimulate and they’re creative, as we want our children to be. We want them to dream and to be learners.” — Ted Lindenberg, founder of the Books for Kids Promoting Literacy program
Lindenberg is confident he will have volunteers at the East County school by the end of the year.
Lindenberg and the other founders of the group will also likely add Bashaw Elementary to its lineup, along with a few other East County schools.
The group mostly targets in-need schools in low socioeconomic zones, Lindenberg says.
“We’re trying to get to kids who need the help the most,” he said.
Volunteers don’t just show pictures and read aloud to the elementary-aged children. They also ask the students questions related to the story.
Lindenberg prepares questions associated with each story, and the volunteers bring the questions to the classrooms and ask them to the children before, during and after the story.
“Say we’re reading ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,’” Lindenberg explained. “The volunteer will ask, ‘Have any of you ever been in a bad storm?’ and ‘What was that storm like?’ Asking questions gets the students to interact and focus on themes in the book.”
Volunteers also ask comprehensive questions after they finish reading the stories to gauge the students’ levels of understanding key concepts. Questions are modified based on the students’ grade level, Lindenberg says.
The readers tend to stay with the same class each month, so they create a bond between volunteer and students, Lindenberg said.
“The children really appreciate what we do as educators or volunteers,” he said. “But, the volunteers appreciate it just as much. They want to be a part of students’ learning and development, as I still do.”
Volunteers give each student a book to take home each month, so the students can start their own collection. The organization has distributed more than 12,000 books so far.
He also hopes to make reading a family project by offering workshops to parents in the schools’ communities.
“We don’t just want boys and girls to read,” Lindenberg said. “We want them to enjoy the process of reading and to know that books are fun.”