Two elementary school children sit at a round table in a library with books lining the shelves behind them.
Claremont Middle School students work at the library on the first day of school. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

Oakland organizations can receive up to $500 and a trove of children’s books from the Oakland Literacy Coalition for new programs that promote reading.

Ideas could include things like organizing a family reading night, launching a teen book club, or creating a breakfast and books event, said Cassie Perham, the co-executive director of the Oakland Literacy Coalition. Organizations don’t need to be solely focused on education or literacy to be eligible; the coalition encourages any group that has a trusting relationship with youth and families to apply. Urban farms, churches, and arts organizations are some of the groups that have won grants in the past.

“Part of our mission as the Oakland Literacy Coalition is building a broad, community-based movement around literacy with the idea that any adult who works with kids in any capacity can be a champion and supporter and advocate for their success,” Perham told The Oaklandside.

Last year, the coalition gave out 5,000 books and 41 “Reading Everywhere” grants throughout the school year and summer. In the past, the grant program has focused on early literacy and elementary-aged students, but this year the coalition is extending the program to serve pre-K through high school-aged youth. The organization is hoping to distribute at least 20 awards this schoolyear, Perham said. 

Community groups can apply online for the grants until Sept. 22 and will be notified by Oct. 2 if they’ve won an award. Groups can apply to receive up to $500 or choose to receive young adult and children’s books from the Oakland Literacy Coalition, or both. Organizations are asked to explain their project and how it will help raise literacy rates and cultivate a love of reading among youth. The coalition also encourages applications from groups that serve families from diverse backgrounds.

“We spend a lot of time making sure our books are broadly representative of the families in Oakland and in a variety of languages. We not only have books in Spanish, but Mam, Arabic, Vietnamese, and as many languages as we can source to make sure families can access those books,” Perham said. “Making sure that kids see themselves and see their families represented and affirmed in the books they have access to is a value we hold very dear.” 

The literacy coalition was launched in 2008 as part of the Rogers Family Foundation and became an independent nonprofit in 2016. The organization partners with schools, parents and families, community organizations, afterschool programs, and other agencies that interact with children, to address low literacy rates in Oakland. 

California standardized test scores from the 2021-2022 academic year showed that only about 36% of third-grade students in Oakland met or exceeded grade-level standards in reading, and improving literacy is a major goal of Oakland Unified School District.  

Along with the grant program, the literacy coalition supports public school libraries, distributes books across the city, and hosts workshops and discussions about literacy.

Perham noted that while the literacy crisis in Oakland is not new, the pandemic and distance learning made it more visible, giving parents a window into their child’s schooling that many didn’t have before.

“It’s not just what happens in school and in the classroom, though that’s critically important—but what’s happening in their broader lives beyond school,” Perham said. “We want to make sure there’s a broad system of support wrapping around kids to ensure their reading success.”

Grants are not the only way the nonprofit is getting adults involved in promoting reading, she added. The organization recently launched the Oakland Reads website, in partnership with Oakland Unified, aimed at helping families and other adults in a child’s life—like a sports coach, pastor, or afterschool program leader—keep up with literacy milestones from birth to fifth grade. The site offers educational videos, downloadable charts, and resources so adults outside the classroom can also be equipped to help children learn to read. 

“It’s become increasingly clear that families and the people who are taking care of our kids outside of school need to be really working hand-in-hand with teachers and what’s happening in the school day so kids can succeed,” said Perham.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.