Nine-year-old Valencyah walks down the hallways of Hazlehurst Pre-K-8 School in Mississippi toting a Ziploc bag filled to the seam with six books. She has three more in her backpack, all checked out from her classroom library. Valencyah is a straight-A student of Kathryn Ling '11 and hopes one day to become a doctor.
But at the rate she's going, Valencyah will have exhausted all the grade-level-appropriate books in her classroom library by December. In spite of efforts by the Hazlehurst City School District, there are still not enough books in classroom libraries across the school.
Last August, Ling's fourth-grade classroom had fewer than 50 books -- and her library was better stocked than most in the school. But the grade-level library was largely inaccessible to most of her class, where 92 percent of the students read at about a second-grade level.
Ling majored in English at Cornell and hoped to inspire passion for reading in her students. So she began seeking ways to improve her classroom, applying for numerous grants through DonorsChoose.org and corporations. By the end of the year, she had increased her classroom library to 250 books, but it still didn't feel like enough.
"The books were great in quantity but lacked diverse and relevant subjects, and realistic characters and situations," Ling says. "Study after study shows that students who are able to choose their own books, who are engaged with the texts and are able to read for longer amounts of time in school and at home, are more successful academically."
Stephanie Pompelia '08, the Teach For America instructional coach for corps members teaching at Hazlehurst and Ling's recruiter into the program, emphasizes the importance of technology in today's schools. "I remember a quote, often repeated at Cornell, that we're preparing kids now for jobs that don't even exist yet," she says. "In order to do that, we need the technology that the top schools in the country are using. Our students should have that same access."
Hazlehurst has 21 laptops to share among 10 grades and more than 1,000 students. Many classrooms have no working desktop computers or appropriate software. Ling notes that the combined lack of literacy and technology resources makes it extremely difficult for students to compete against their peers in national and international college admissions and job markets.
Last summer, Ling teamed up with fellow Teach For America corps member Akeeba Maze to collect books from sources like book fairs and garage sales. Although they accumulated approximately 400 books, their efforts barely touched the long-term lack of resources their school faces.
A conversation with Kate McCullough, associate professor of English at Cornell, pushed Ling to think on a broader scale, and this fall Ling and Maze formed Light in the Attic, a charitable organization whose mission is to raise funds to purchase books and technology for students in Mississippi. Though their pilot site is Hazlehurst, they hope to expand efforts to other critical-need schools in the state as the organization grows.
Ling says their current goals are to raise $7,500 for books and laptops for two classes by the New Year. These goals will jump-start their long-term plan of bringing 100 books to each classroom and laptops to the third through eighth grades.
"These goals are a small stepping-off point, and certainly not the solution to changing the educational inequity in our community, state and country," Ling says. "But these resources will vastly improve the daily experience of our students, their opportunities to succeed and the quality of instruction which they are receiving."
Meanwhile, Valencyah will continue reading, poring through book after book. "I love to read," she says. "I couldn't stop if I tried."
This story first appeared in Ezra Update.