A 5-year-old named Jacob Adams was the first to test the big blue vending machine newly installed at the Salvation Army’s community center in Southeast Washington. Hopping up on a step-stool to reach the bright control screen, he quickly made his choice, and his selection tumbled from the machine’s coils and landed with a thud.
Jacob was now the proud owner of “Bear Hugs,” a Dr. Seuss-like picture book about family tenderness.
The vending machine was one of three installed in Anacostia on Wednesday as part of a program to bring free books to children in one of the District neighborhoods with the lowest literacy rates.
Less than 25 percent of students enrolled in Ward 8 middle schools are reading at grade level, according to city school data. The number dwindles to less than 18 percent at the ward’s two high schools.
To help close the literacy gap, JetBlue airlines has launched a pilot program in Anacostia that aims to provide about 100,000 books this summer to children up to 14 years old. A selection of 12 books will rotate every two weeks, offering up to 42 different titles through the summer.
“We wanted to do something that made kids want to read and want books,” said Icema Gibbs, director of corporate social responsibility for JetBlue. “This way, they come to the machine, they choose what they like, instead of us deciding what they get and when they can get it.”
On Wednesday, about 200 children got a chance to choose from books about dinosaurs, knights and chocolate shops, among other subjects.
“There are families that want their kids to learn and read,” said Margaret Charles, who helped her 1-year-old granddaughter Leia Callahan pick out “Ten Hungry Rabbits.” The little girl loves animals, she said. But Charles pointed out that many in the neighborhood cannot always afford to buy books that their kids can take home and keep.
Leia’s other books have been passed down from one child to the next, Charles said. With the new vending machines, children such as Leia will have new books they can call their own. “They get to write their names in them, keep them and start a collection,” Charles said.
Two other vending machines have been installed at the Safeway store on Alabama Avenue and near the entrance of Matthews Memorial Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
JetBlue officials have run a literacy program for five years through their charitable arm, Soar With Reading. They decided to fund the book vending machines after commissioning a survey on areas with limited access to books — book deserts. The survey identified Anacostia as one of those areas after determining that there was only one age-appropriate children’s book for every 830 kids in Anacostia.
The findings are based on how many children are able to buy books and how many have access to books during the summer months, when kids are most likely to stop reading and learning, stunting progress in the coming school year.
The lag, commonly referred to as the “summer learning slide,” can hit families in poor communities particularly hard, said George Williams, a spokesman for D.C. public libraries. Those families are least likely to be able to afford summer camps and classes that have become common in affluent areas.
Children in Anacostia have access to a public library. And library officials point out that so far this year the facility has seen more than 101,500 visits, with more than 6,500 children and teens books checked out. But literacy experts stress the importance of having books in the home, too.
“The home library and the public library really work to complement each other,” Williams said. “The library gives you the opportunity of discovery through browsing the different topics, but owning a book means you can read it over and over again, building a love of reading.”
It also could help close a persistent achievement gap between low-income children and children raised with more resources, educators have said. A 1995 study from the University of Kansas found that children raised in poverty hear 30 million fewer words before entering kindergarten than their affluent counterparts.
“Kids in this area can be as much as five years behind in reading level and literacy,” said Robin Berkley, executive director of Horton’s Kids, which helps struggling children in Southeast Washington improve their reading and math skills.
The vending machines are the most recent addition to helping children in Anacostia boost their skills, but not the only one.
The library has initiated specific summer programs geared toward fighting the summer learning slide. It also helps provide meals for students who would have received a free lunch in school.
The school system has a program that sent each elementary and eighth-grade student home for the summer with three books.
But JetBlue officials are hoping that the vending machines will catch on and that Anacostia will be the first of many communities where books will be dispensed to children for free. And they’re pressing to make it as easy as possible to get books into the hands of youths.
Parents can opt into getting text message alerts and updates about books that are available. Children can return as many times as they want to pick up a new paperback. The machines will keep track of new users, but not how many each child takes home.
Shelley Hudson, executive administrator for Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, said she hopes the free books push parents to read more to their kids.
“It will help connect the family, and have parents reading to their kids,” Hudson said. “That expands their imagination and gets them excited about reading.”
Gibbs said JetBlue officials have an idea of how they want the program to conclude:
“Hopefully, at the end of the summer there are no books left, and they will all be out in the community,” she said.