NEW YORK — To get kids motivated about reading, Burton Freeman starts with an activity sure to capture their attention: a shopping spree.
This isn't a casual trip to the mall. Instead, several times each year, a swarm of children accompany the retired attorney to a bookstore, where they get busy with their end of the deal: each collecting $50 worth of books. Mr. Freeman pays the bill.
"A bookstore can be a very exciting place for kids," he says as he trolls bookshelves with the children, the participants in the East Harlem Tutorial Program.
After he retired in 1998, he and his wife, Sandra, formed the Freeman-Harrison Family Foundation and approached the program with an eye to participating in its computer-literacy efforts.
But he was caught off guard when he visited the group and, as an icebreaker, asked kids about their favorite book. "I got these blank stares," he recalls. "I began to realize that these kids didn't have books at home." Many had never been to a bookstore.
He gave a grant to the program, stipulating that $6,000 of it be used to take participants to a bookstore where each would be given a $50 credit and guidance in buying books.
The Freeman-Harrison foundation has since adopted five East Harlem public elementary schools, intent on turning students into lifelong readers.
"Literacy, conventional literacy, is the absolute foundation for anything," he says.
So far, more than 600 third-graders from East Harlem and almost 200 young people from the East Harlem Tutorial Program have bought books. And Freeman hasn't missed a trip. "I take a very hands-on attitude," he says, smiling.
Toward that end, he worked with students, teachers, and principals to develop classroom activities around the experience.
The idea behind the program is simple: If children have ownership in a book, perhaps they'll have a vested interest in reading. "Having their own books makes children more interested in wanting to read for themselves," says Julie Taylor, a teacher at Sunrise Elementary School in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. "Too often, students read because their teacher says they have to - not because they are excited."
Although Freeman cannot cite scientific evidence to support his thesis, he says his experience with children strongly suggests that owning books creates enthusiasm for reading.
"What he's saying to kids is, 'You are readers.' And that's important," says Peggy McNamara, co-director of the reading and literacy program at the Bank Street College of Education in New York.
Educators say kids benefit from knowing adults with a passion for literature.
"It's important for them to see that adults outside the school are interested in them - and in reading," says Robert Negron, principal of Public School 7, one of the adopted schools.
Student Henry Hernandez says his sixth-grade teacher was an avid reader. Henry chose "The Witches" by Roald Dahl, because he saw her reading the book. And Jessica Mendez says a tutor at the East Harlem Tutorial Program "was the person who got me into books." She holds two books by Julia Alvarez. "I really have to say thank you to him," she says, referring to Freeman.
Freeman says five schools are not enough when approximately 400 of 675 elementary schools in New York City are labeled "at risk." He wishes more people could band together to reach a wider audience.
In the meantime, the children are spreading the word. Henry is carrying five books. The three novels are for himself, but the level-one math workbook and a read-along book with a cassette tape are clearly for someone else. "This is for my little brother. He starts first grade in the fall."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society