Making Reading a Star Attraction

In a corner of downtown Central Library’s Children’s Literature Department, actor Elliott Gould is reading “Arthur’s New Puppy.” Over by the stacks, J. Paul Getty Trust President Emeritus Harold Williams enjoys a picture book about sunflowers. In another corner, TV personality Bob Saget pours through “Looking for Atlantis,” a sensitive read for kids tackling the topic of death. Across from him, actress Mayim Bialik is engulfed in a Babar tale, and beside her, producer Marc Platt is studiously leafing through one children’s book after another.

Despite appearances, these high-profile Angelenos are not on some trendy trek to connect with their inner child. They are, in fact, reading to school children at a star-studded kick-off for KOREH L.A., a new program designed to combat illiteracy.

Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, “KOREH L.A.: The Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy” is the most recent affiliate of the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a non-profit movement. The nationwide version is already up and running in more than 17 cities, such as Miami, Philadelphia and Boston (site of the program’s pilot). Now the reading campaign is finally hitting home. And with the involvement of more than 60 Jewish institutions — Young Israel of Century City, Shalhevet High School, Temple Isaiah, and Hadassah among them — KOREH L.A. is already the city’s largest Jewish coalition effort.

KOREH L.A. hopes to reverse some frightening statistics. Recent national statistics say California’s fourth-graders ranked second to last among 39 states in reading skills and comprehension. As high as 80 percent of those fourth-graders are not proficient readers, and more than half of them have failed to even partially master fundamental skills. Urban school districts have been particularly hard-hit by the disturbing trend.

So champions of KOREH L.A. believe the one-on-one reading initiative is particularly welcome here in Los Angeles, home to the nation’s second-largest school system with nearly 700,000 students. And beginning in October, hundreds of volunteers will be deployed throughout the LAUSD, where each will spend an hour a week reading to a designated child.

The Jewish Federation’s interest in KOREH L.A. started about a year and a half ago, when Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, attended a conference in Miami. There, he learned about the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy — the brainchild of Moment Magazine founder Leonard Fein — and the work that the nascent organization had begun across the Eastern seaboard. Hirschfeld was so taken with the idea that, upon his return, he immediately spoke to Elaine Albert, director of the JCRC’s Commission on Urban Affairs, about installing a local branch of Fein’s program. Soon, KOREH L.A. found a “literacy partner” in the Wonder of Reading — a non-profit organization that renovates public school libraries and trains tutors — which has helped place the program in more than 33 schools.