LEWISTON — Since she retired this past June, former Longley Elementary School Principal Linda St. Andre has traveled, overseen her kitchen remodeling and visited the grandkids.

But emotionally, she hasn’t left the Longley students.

“I’m constantly thinking about them,” St. Andre said Wednesday. “I knew as I made the decision to retire, I wanted to continue working where my heart is — improving things for those kids to help them be successful.”

She’s organized a new book drive for Longley students through a national group, First Book: Access to New Books for Children in Need. The book drive will continue through Jan. 10.

Having books at home helps boost reading skills, St. Andre said.

“There’s something special about owning a new book that’s all yours from the very beginning, getting the right book at the right age,” she said. 

Children from middle-income families own an average of 13 books. “Poor neighborhood kids own zero,” St. Andre said.

Longley serves the city’s poorest neighborhood.

Reading at home helps children experience reading other than at school. “It integrates reading into their life,” she said. Students can take library books home, and they do, “but it’s not the same.”

When children own books, “they’re there for them to revisit. Kids go back to them over and over. They read them at different depths of understanding, gain confidence by the repeated practice. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why it’s important.”

When predicting future student success, research shows having books in the home is as important as the parents’ education level, St. Andre said. “Success in literacy is the cornerstone to success in life,” she said. Poor reading skills are linked to dropping out of school, being on welfare or involved in crime. Being a strong reader is a predictor of success in later life, research shows.

St. Andre researched organizations and found that First Book receives large donations from children’s book publishers. The new books are free or deeply discounted.

To get books, schools must prove they have high numbers of students from poor families. Longley did and qualified, St. Andre said. Through the group, a little money goes a long way.

“Five dollars can buy two books; $25 can buy 10 books, which is a home library for a child,” St. Andre said.

St. Andre recalled that when she was principal, a pupil was sent to her office for bad behavior. The girl was angry and didn’t want to talk.

“I told her, ‘Until you’re ready to talk about your behavior, there are some books over there.’ Instead of scoffing at the books, she took books off the shelf and read them. It calmed her,” St. Andre said.

The girl visited St. Andre’s office often to read the same book. When she left Longley because her family was moving, St. Andre gave her the book.

“It meant so much to her,” she said. “The book was a friend. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.”

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For more information, or to buy new books for Longley students, go to http://supporters.firstbook.org/goto/Longley.

The effort ends Jan. 10. Books are expected to be distributed to students in February.

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