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Governor’s Summer Reading Challenge Launches on St. Thomas

The students were all smiles when handed colorful books about pelicans and pirates during the launch of the Governor’s Summer Reading Challenge at Joseph Sibilly Elementary School on Wednesday morning. Each year the national initiative challenges students in grades kindergarten through sixth to read five or more books during the summer.

The Office of the Governor and the Virgin Islands Department of Education partner for the challenge to promote literacy throughout the territory. 

Students attending the territory’s public, private and parochial schools are given two books that are appropriate for their grade level to read over the summer. Encouraging students to read more is important, since reading proficiency is a major issue in the Virgin Islands.

According to the 2012 U.S. Virgin Islands State Literary Plan, the majority of students in third to sixth grade are performing below expected reading proficiency levels.

The books given to the territory’s school children are unique compared to other places that participate in the initiative, since they are written and illustrated specifically for the students by Virgin Islands or Caribbean authors and artists.

“No where else in the U.S. will students have books especially made for them,” said Mario Picayo, whose Campanita Books and Little Bell Caribbean companies publish the books for the challenge. 

Picayo told the students that, “In all of these books, you’re going to see yourselves and your culture,” adding that the students would recognize the names of schools and streets.

By putting culturally relevant books into the hands of students, the initiative goes beyond encouraging students to read more. It’s also about teaching the children about local heritage and traditions, as well as about the environment. 

Many of the students excitedly recalled a book about callaloo soup, a traditional local dish, when asked if they could remember any of last year’s books.

Lois Hassell-Habtes, a former principal of Joseph Sibilly Elementary School, performed a traditional tale with the aid of a guitar called “Broo ‘Nansi and the Tar Baby,” a story about a trip to a secret garden to get food.

The late Virgin Islands storyteller Ector Roebuck told Hassell-Habtes the story as a part of her dissertation she completed at the University of Illinois, which documents the territory’s traditional tales that have been passed down through generations.

Now in its eighth year in the territory, the Summer Reading Challenge was started under former Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s administration. When the initiative began, Picayo said the students received books at a weekend event, but now the books are passed out during the school day to ensure they all get them.

In addition to the books, the students also received a letter from Gov. Kenneth Mapp telling them, “Just about any book that you read will advance your most basic skill and stimulate your mind to grow more curious as all your learning skills develop.” 

Samuel Topp, the deputy communications director for the Office of the Governor, gave the students a firsthand account of the importance of learning through reading. He told them about growing up in Prince Edward County, Va., where the public school system decided to close for five years rather than integrate its schools after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

If he hadn’t kept reading books during the five years of school he missed, Topp said he would’ve fallen behind in school. Instead, he graduated on time and went on to earn a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago, he said.

A total of five books were given out during the challenge’s launch: “Where Did the Baby Go?” by David and Phillis Gershator (K-2 grade); “We Are Pirates/Somos Piratas” by Adrian Guerra (K-1 grade); “Brown Pelicans” by Mario Picayo (2-4 grade); “Broo ‘Nansi and the Tar Baby” collected and written by Dr. Lois Hassell-Habtes (4-6 grade); and “Caribella” by Phillis Gershator (5-6 grade). 

When the reading challenge ends on Sept. 23, students who have read five or more books will be invited to attend a celebration at Charlotte Amalie High School where prizes will be given out. In order to prove they’ve read the books, students must fill out tracking sheets with information about each book and a summary.

“It is a great way to encourage and promote literacy while students are away from the classroom,” said Cynthia T. Graham, Education’s director of public relations and communications.

After the launch event ended, the students broke for recess and a few eager readers sat off to the side, noses already deep in their new books.

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