BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Jennifer Clift is on a mission to help students fall in love with reading.
It seems to be working. The Niskayuna resident, a reading specialist at Lincoln Community School in Schenectady, says students seldom leave her office without a book in their hands.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in computers,” Clift said. “It’s just not the same as handling a book.”
Her campaign isn’t just about reading for the sake of reading, either. In her position, Clift worries about students losing ground in the skills they’ve learned when they leave school for a weeklong vacation or the entire summer. In fact, she said, students who don’t read during summer vacation can lose ground that puts them significantly behind their peers.
“If they have three months of summer reading loss, by sixth grade they’re 18 months behind,” she said.
But it’s tough to force a kid to read, and even tougher when school’s out. So the plan is to make sure students of all ages get excited about books and reach for them during their free time.
“They’re only with us a few hours a day,” Clift said. “They need to be able to continue at home.
“We’re really just trying to develop the culture of reading,” she added.
This leads to some pretty unacademic selections being snapped up by kids, from comic books and graphic novels to activity books and series with television characters as the main heroes.
But there’s no need to force textbooks on kids, Clift said. She’s happy to see them fall in love with words on the page in any format.
Through the program, the kids have begun to form a sense of which genres and styles of reading they most enjoy.
“My favorite book is ‘Pete the Cat,’ ” said second-grader Cassiana Viele. “It’s about Pete’s lunch. He has ice cream.”
Viele prefers Doritos, but she likes Pete’s adventures in junk food just the same. She’s even passed on her love of reading by sharing books with her younger sisters. Two-year-old Miley likes books about Dora the Explorer. One-year-old Zoe likes Elmo. And she predicts her soon-to-be baby brother will be into space books.
Third-grader Evan Itwarue likes graphic novels, like “Avatar, The Last Airbender.” He watches the cartoon version on television, but the paper version lights his face with a smile.
“I just read a lot,” he said.
Sixth-grader Trinity Cooper likes challenging science fiction, and classmate AJ Sahaman has developed a taste for nonfiction.
The students’ love of books has become a feedback loop of ravenous reading. Clift runs contests where students log their minutes of reading during school vacations. The winners receive — you guessed it — more free books.
Clift has baskets full of sorted books in her office waiting for young readers, and boxes filling her cabinets. The volumes number almost 2,000, and every single one was donated.
“People are so generous,” she said. She’s received huge comic book collections, hardcover children’s books in mint condition, and entire series — almost more than she can keep up with. Some of the most regular donors are the libraries in Saratoga County.
But she’s still hunting for more books. Clift hopes to send two or three books home with every single student in her school, trying to give them a leg up for the future.
The occasional book turns out not to be appropriate for students, either because of mature themes or racy illustrations. But even those help the program. A Schenectady teacher helped Clift find a way to raise funds by recycling the rejects.
“Whatever we can’t use we recycle and we get money for the school,” she said.
Second-grader Lisa Dubree said she’s always excited to see what new books are on offer from Clift’s always-evolving office library.
“If you read adventure books you can imagine you’re on an adventure,” she said excitedly.
What the kids like
Interested in donating books to students at Lincoln Community School? They can be dropped off in the lobby of the Schenectady JCC, 2565 Balltown Road, Niskayuna, until June 5.
Clift is seeking books of all kinds for grades kindergarten through eight. Especially popular among the students are graphic novels, comic books, books with television characters in them, non-fiction, books about sports and animals. Popular series include Junie B. Jones, Henry and Mudge, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the “Uglies” series by Scott Westerfield, Dragon Ball-Z, Dork Diaries, Nancy Drew, and pretty much anything you liked as a kid.
The school is also seeking reusable fabric bags to help students transport the books.
UPDATE: A previous version of this story identified the address of the JCC incorrectly. It has been corrected.
How to donate
Books can be dropped off at the Schenectady JCC thru Friday, June 5. For more information, contact Jennifer Clift, email@example.com, 370-8355.