Writing the Book On Reading

Seated before 21 third-graders at Selma Avenue Elementary School in Hollywood, actor Henry Winkler cracked open a copy of "I Got a ‘D’ in Salami," a children’s book he co-authored, and began reading. The "Fonze," a little grayer and thicker around the middle than in his salad days, quickly won over his young audience, which giggled at his jokes and sat with rapt attention as he painted pictures with words.

"I couldn’t read in fourth grade," said Winkler, a dyslexic who overcame his learning disability to go on to Yale Drama School and "Happy Days" fame. "Reading is the most wonderful adventure."

Winkler dropped by Selma for the fifth-year kickoff of KOREH L.A., the much-lauded literacy program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Over the years, 2,500 Jewish volunteers have read weekly to 3,000 students, ages 6 to 9, at 75 schools. About 70 percent of the youngsters are Latino, 10 percent African American, 8 percent Asian and 12 percent Caucasian or other.

KOREH L.A. has done such a good job of turning students on to books that the group now has a waiting list of 25 schools.

"We would love [KOREH L.A.] to adopt all our schools," said Susan Huntzinger, supervisor of Library and Information Services at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Like the children who have graduated from its program, KOREH L.A. is growing up. In recent months, KOREH L.A. has spawned three "baby KOREH L.A.s," which build on the success of the original, said Elaine Albert, director of KOREH L.A. The new initiatives, undertaken largely at the suggestion of volunteers, should help KOREH L.A. touch even more lives, she said.

The new programs include:

Corporate KOREH L.A.: Created with a $50,000 grant from Verizon, this program will underwrite the costs of training and recruiting corporate employees to mentor students at nearby elementary schools. The goal is to sign up 300 volunteers from 15 companies by next summer. Playa Vista, a real estate development firm; law firms Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp and Fulbright & Jaworski, and Whole Foods Market have agreed to participate.

Corporate KOREH L.A. represents an attempt by the organization to expand beyond the Jewish community. "Most of the kids we serve are not Jewish, and this is an opportunity for us to have our volunteer base to be more reflective of that diversity," said Sherry Marks, consultant to Corporate KOREH L.A.

Preschool KOREH L.A.: This program, as yet unfunded, will work with Head Start to give children under 5 the tools to become readers. After undergoing training, volunteers will teach preschoolers how to hold pencils and pens and recognize shapes and colors, all prerequisites for reading. The program will also train parents and grandparents how to prepare their young children to read. Pre-School KOREH L.A. needs $50,000 to get off the ground.

KOREH L.A. Book Initiative: This program, funded with a $50,000 grant from Toyota Corp. and $40,000 in individual donations, buys books for elementary schools. So far, three elementary schools have received money to replace outdated books and restock their relatively barren shelves.

Selma, the recipient of $25,000, bought more than 1,000 books this summer. The new texts have won over the elementary school’s 650 students, who now cram into the library during recess and lunch.

"In reading, they’re going to discover all the promises this country has for them," Selma principal Mark Paz said. "The promise of a good life, a better life than they have now. The way out of this entrapment of poverty is through education."

The book initiative couldn’t have come at a better time. In Los Angeles schools, there are only 9 1/2 library books per student, about half of the recommended 18, Huntzinger said. In light of California’s budget deficit, the state plans to spend only $1.40 per student on library services this year. That’s down from $28 it spent in the 2001-2002 academic year, Huntzinger added.

KOREH L.A.’s innovation impresses Leonard Fein, founder of the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy in Boston. He said KOREH L.A. is the largest and among the most energetic of the National Jewish Coalition’s 55 affiliates, including Chicago, San Antonio and Portland.

"They’ve gone out and mobilized support in the community from foundations and corporations in innovative and almost daring ways," Fein said.