Tackling reading proficiency one book at a time

There’s a critical milestone for children at the end of the third grade, a milestone that can reverberate throughout the rest of their lives. And it involves something seemingly simple, something many may take for granted.

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Caleb Gipple's scholarship is one of many available to UNI students. For information about the scholarships the college offers, click here. But hurry, the priority deadline for all scholarship applications is January 15, 2019.


More specifically, reading proficiency, defined by most educators as a mastery of grade- and age-level expectations.

Because, after third grade, an important transition occurs. Up to that point, students are learning to read; after that, they’re reading to learn. It goes without saying that if a student’s reading proficiency falls behind, their entire education falls behind as well.

University of Northern Iowa sophomore Caleb Gipple is well aware of this fact, and of the raft of data that outlines the consequences of poor reading proficiency, such as increased high school drop-out rates and the litany of consequences that incurs, including lower earnings, higher unemployment and increased incarceration rates, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gipple, an economics and political science major, decided to help tackle the problem by starting a project he calls Readers Today, Leaders Tomorrow, which aims to provide books to low-income children in the Cedar Valley. The idea earned him a $1,000 scholarship from the Principal Community Scholars Program and is designed to encourage student leadership to meet community needs.

And the area has a need. Reading proficiency in Black Hawk County stood at 61.5 percent as of 2012.

It’s a problem in particular for children from low-income households. When students fall behind in reading proficiency, it is often because they don’t have access to books during the summer months, when school is not in session. Gipple calls this, “the summer slip.”

“If you look at the numbers, it makes it pretty clear,” Gipple said. “We have students that can’t access material, so they fall behind in class and become more vulnerable to dropping out.”

The data are striking:

-      Students who don’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school.

-      In middle-income households, there are 13 age-appropriate books per child; in low-income households, there is one age-appropriate book per 300 children.

-      When kids don’t read in the summer, they fall behind. By fifth grade, children in need are nearly three grades behind their peers in reading skills.

-      Lower income students hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers.

To tackle this problem, Gipple’s project will use donations to buy books at a discounted rate from his partners and then distribute them to schools. He will work with the schools to identify students from low-income households and link them up with books.

The project is still in its early phases, but Gipple hopes to donate 2,000 books – enough to give each student in need two or three books for the summer.

“It’s a simple idea, but it’s powerful,” Gipple said. “If we can inspire passion in reading and learning in just five kids, that has a potential to be life changing. If this only impacts a handful of kids, it will be worth it.”

And Gipple knows first-hand the power of reading. His enthusiasm for it was ignited in the second grade, thanks to the support of his teacher, Mrs. Camera.

“I was that kid that read on the bus,” Gipple said. “It was this passion for reading that I attribute to a lot of my success in college.”

For Gipple, his project, and the scholarship he earned, show the value of UNI’s education. He often gives visitor tours of campus, and he doesn’t talk about why he chose to attend UNI; he talks about why he stayed.

“I stayed because of the people. At every step of the process with this project, I had a staff member there. They were my own cheerleaders,” Gipple said. “That outpouring of love and support is what makes UNI special.”

Gipple is currently accepting both cash and book donations. To donate, visit his fund-raising website