Milford teacher instills drive to read

Milford Central Academy English teachers Jessica Rash, left, and Alexandra Paquette stand with a portion of the books they’ve collected so far during the book drive, which has a goal to gift every student at the school. (Delaware State News/Ben Heck)I

MILFORD — “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book” is a quote by J.K. Rowling that Jessica Rash lives by.

“Helping students find a book they enjoy is like a puzzle that I can’t put down,” Ms. Rash said.

For the past five years Ms. Rash has been gifting her students with books as a present before they embark on Christmas break.

“It is important to me that my students have books at home and at school,” Ms. Rash said. “The more access to books they have, the more likely it is that they will find one they enjoy. I chose to share my passion of reading by gifting books.”

But when she became a sixth-grad English teacher at Milford Central Academy last year, her class size went from just a few students to 60 to 90. So she decided to take a different approach.

“My class sizes were extremely small when I first started out as a teacher,” Ms. Rash said. “My largest class was 18 students and my smallest was five students. It started to increase over the years as I started switching schools. I have 90 students at Milford Central Academy. I just couldn’t afford to give every student a book. Last year I started my first book drive to ensure that every student would be able to have a book for the holidays.”

Ms. Rash said the process wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be.

“I started putting the word out on social media and email that I needed middle school books to give to my students,” Ms. Rash said.

“I already bought 50 on my own, but I needed about 40 more at the time. I quickly got more than that so I changed my goal. My new goal was 400 books. That would give me enough for the entire sixth grade and a few other classes.”

She said each week she started to get more donations, so much so that she had to take a cart to the school office a few times to pick them up.

“By vacation, every sixth-grade student, life skills students and English as a Second Language students had a book to keep,” Ms. Rash said. “We had a few left over that went into our winter raffle for positive behavior.

“I had donations from teachers, friends, family, community members, students, and parents. My fellow sixth-grade ELA teachers also put the word out and got donations from their friends, family and even college professors. It was amazing. I was blown away at the generosity.”

This year she has a new goal. She hopes to raise enough books to gift the entire school, which will be about 1,200 books for the school which comprises sixth through eighth grade.

“Ms. Alex Paquette, seventh-grade ELA teacher at MCA, approached me a few weeks ago about trying to get enough books for the entire school and I was all for it,” Ms. Rash said.

“I planned on doing a drive just for the sixth grade again but, with her help, I thought we could get enough to make a larger impact. So, instead of getting 400 books we need to get 1,200 books.”

Spreading the word

Ms. Rash said their plan is to get the word out as much as possible.

“We plan to put out flyers to the community, social media posts and emails,” Ms. Rash said. “Ms. Paquette made donation boxes and contacted local businesses to house them. We have donation boxes in Milford at Fur-Baby Boutique, Grotto Pizza, Red Bandana and the MCA school library.

“I created a donation letter that we sent to local businesses as well as literacy-driven businesses in surrounding communities and states. Ms. Paquette also made the flyers and made copies for students to take home at MCA.”

“We also reached out to local radio stations and newspapers,” Ms. Rash added. “Our general idea is that there is a direct correlation with our coverage to the number of donations we receive.”

The drive’s goal is to collect 1,200 new or used books by the Dec. 14 deadline.

Even though the process has been tough at times Ms. Rash said their hard work has been paying off.

“We’ve gotten one anonymous donation of 70 books, a monetary donation, a teacher donation of book coupons from Scholastic and 20 additional books, three bags of books from a parent from my last school, as well as donations from the community at our local dropoff points,” Ms. Rash said.

“We are so thankful for all the donations we have and will get as well as the support we have from local businesses allowing us to have a dropoff location with them. We are also so grateful for all the support on social media with donations and sharing our posts.”

She said help has been coming from all different corners.

“Ms. Paquette and I worked together to get as much coverage as possible,” Ms. Rash said.

“We were able to get lots of support on social media including a post from Milford School District with our flyer as well as lots of shares from that post and our own.

“I have gotten several responses to my emails some in regards to donations and others with more connections. I have received emails from Governor Carney’s office, (Education) Secretary (Susan) Bunting, BookSource, and Delaware State University.”

One simple idea

The idea came to her during her earlier years as a teacher.

“When I started out, I taught at a private school and my class sizes were extremely small,” Ms. Rash said. “Since my class sizes were so small and every child in my class celebrated Christmas, I gave them handmade ornaments.”

When Ms. Rash became a teacher at Dover’s Campus Community School in 2014 instead of giving ornaments out as presents she thought of another idea.

“I didn’t know my students very well in the time it took me to begin my position before winter vacation began,” Ms. Rash added. “However, I gave my students some challenges for the vacation.

“One of the challenges was to read a book,” Ms. Rash said. “One of my students approached me and said she did not have any books at home. I found out later on that she did have books at home but they were too young, too old, or not hers. Either way, my heart broke a little. I had to do something about it.”

At that point she was still unsure of what to get her students for the holidays, so she decided to buy them books instead of making handmade ornaments.

“I went to thrift stores and raided my home library,” Ms. Rash said. “I was able to scrounge up enough books for each of my students to have a book to keep before vacation. When I gave this student her book, her face lit up. It was thrilling to see someone so overjoyed for a book.”

She said that’s what continues to inspire her.

“When I saw her face and my other students’ joy, it was like a fire was lit,” Ms. Rash said. “I realized that I could make an impact, even a small one, in every student’s life by giving them a book.

“As years went on, I realized that some students weren’t impacted as heavily as readers but they were impacted by the generosity. I teach for a lot of reasons. I teach for that light bulb moment, to see each student grow, to see them apply what they’ve learned, to learn how to be a leader, but also to see them find joy in reading.”

But through it all she never imaged that one simple idea would impact so many lives years later.

Giving students the gift of reading is a priority for me,” Ms. Rash said.

“When I started teaching, I never thought I would have this opportunity. Every teacher wants to impact their students but with the help of Ms. Paquette, my colleagues, family and community, we can have a lasting impact on our students, even the ones who aren’t in my classroom.

“Getting the community involved and impacting so many has been a dream. Now when the students get their books they see the generosity of the entire community and not just their teacher. This endeavor takes a village.”

Books can be donated to the dropoff spots until Dec. 14.

Arshon Howard is a freelance writer living in Dover.

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