High school students at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute in Massachusetts are proving they care about the littlest people on their big campus. Before the 2018–19 school year, teens in Lynn’s SkillsUSA career tech program decided to promote literacy as their annual project. In past years, they’ve taken on hunger, the opioid crisis and helped Lynn fight veterans’ homelessness. Now, given that a preschool and kindergarten were housed on their campus, and that they’d helped with a previous First Book distribution sponsored by the Lynn Teachers Union, the students decided to work with the union to hold their own book drive.
Jason McCuish, an English teacher and AFT member at Lynn Tech, helped his students organize a massive fundraiser and First Book distribution. But while teachers may have been the catalyst for this 20,000-book event, it was students who ran the show. Here, they describe how they did it. McCuish is joined by senior David Barrios, senior Amari Gaston, junior Erick Hernandez and junior Victoria Hong.
David Barrios: So, we started last summer. Every year, for our SkillsUSA service project, we try to focus on one important cause. We wanted to promote literacy in the city of Lynn, and there were a lot of small steps leading up to the First Book event. Last fall, we bagged up 250 back-to-school care packages for little kids nearby — pens, markers, erasers, glue, that kind of stuff. Then we designed bulletin boards to promote vocational careers, and garden paving stones to encourage reading. Each paving stone features a page from a book, either Brown Bear, Brown Bear or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Our idea is that when kids jump around and play, they’re reminded of a book at the same time. We also built 16 bookshelves, one for each kindergarten class, and painted them.
Jason McCuish: It’s been a busy school year. We’ve been fundraising, building bookshelves, decorating bulletin boards, writing our own book, and the highlight: a giant First Book celebration. We raised about $11,000, which we spent on about 20,000 books. Our motto was: Build Bookshelves, Fill Bookshelves! We used online First Book crowdsourcing. We filled 16 bookshelves. All those books came from First Book Marketplace and the Book Bank. We took advantage of probably every title they had.
David: We’ve had First Book drives at Tech before, which were led by the union, and we volunteered to help. This year, since our project is literacy-based, we wanted to see if we could sponsor and run our own drive. We tossed around ideas. We called up the Lynn Teachers Union. They were very supportive, and it was because of them that this project became a reality. In December, we started collecting donations.
"We encouraged every student to raise $26 because every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school. Just the ability to read helps in your success rate for staying in school, so having these books would help kids succeed."
Jason: If you could only see that celebration where the little kids came. They were so excited. We invited all the state and local politicians. What they didn’t know was that we would ask them to paint bookshelves! [Laughs.] It was a weeklong celebration. The middle school helped, too. It was cool how it worked out.
Erick Hernandez: About a thousand people came. It got a big amount of attention when we had Mayor Tom McGee and state Sen. Brendan Crighton help paint the bookshelves. Yeah, they did a good job.
Amari Gaston: To go along with these new books, we designed a career tech bulletin board and reproduced it in 16 classrooms, each with about eight different trades on it, like plumber, cosmetologist, doctor, welder, chef or carpenter.
Jason: The purpose of the bulletin board was to set the stage for a book we wrote — a book about different trades. This book stars our school mascot, Tech the Tiger. It’s called Tech Goes to Tiger Town. It looks pretty amazing and it’s being printed as we speak. We’re planning to go around from classroom to classroom, reading it to the preschoolers and kindergartners.
David: Our main character is a little tiger who doesn’t want to be like the regular tigers in the jungle, so he goes to Tech and explores different career options.
Erick: At the end, we ask, “Which career would you choose?”
Amari: Our final project for the school year is painting those paving stones with storybook characters — painting them and placing them in the courtyard. We’re about 75 percent done. They should be done by springtime.
Jason: The secret of success here is the Tech kids. But also, you make sure that you reach out to the community. For us, we knew right away, when we thought literacy, we knew we would reach out to the AFT. We knew that our local teachers union is committed to this. We knew First Book is a good idea. That was a no-brainer for us. So, first we called the Lynn Teachers Union, and Sheila O’Neil, our local president, was like, “Absolutely.” She got us connected to AFT Massachusetts, and then the national level. Quickly we knew our project was going to be a success because we had strong partners.
Erick: We started a social media campaign in early November. We created a donation page on First Book. Lynn Tech’s SkillsUSA program made the first book order before Thanksgiving, using about $5,000 to buy 8,000 books. The second order came from the money raised in the social media campaign. That was in early December, $5,600 to buy about 10,000 books. The Lynn Teachers Union gave us $1,750, AFT Massachusetts $1,000, and AFT national $1,000. Our target was to get about 15,000 books because there are about 15,000 students in the Lynn public schools.
Amari: A big challenge was getting the word out to the community. Besides social media, we made fliers and took them out to businesses and public libraries, asked to put them on doors and windows. The superintendent emailed all the principals. We contacted our local media, the Lynn Item and the Lynn Journal. We sent a news release to the major media.
David: We actually surpassed our goal and got about 20,000 books. It was awesome to see how the parents would go in and be amazed. I don’t think they imagined how many books would be there.
"And the little kids, their smiles, because they knew all the books they were familiar with, like The Cat in the Hat, and they could just go in and pick out what they wanted. One little kid was like, “OMG, that’s my favorite book!”"
On top of that, so we could give kids something else to do, we had face painting, cookie decorating, coloring, helium balloons. The AFT sponsored a create-your-own-story center, a table where kids could sit down and write their own stories.
Jason: The support from the community was overwhelmingly positive. They were kind of stunned that kids of high school age could do something of that caliber. That is the secret sauce. Kids have great hearts.
Victoria Hong: What I’ll remember about this project is that it helped us with building communications skills, doing something good in the community and doing something nice for each other. It was a gift. This was a gift for everybody in Lynn.
If you are an AFT member, register today for First Book and discover all the ways this great AFT partner can help your students, your local union and your community.
This blog post is re-published with permission from AFT Voices. Read the original post. To learn more about AFT's Schoolhouse Voices from PreK-12 public educators, visit: https://aftvoices.org/school-house-voices/home. Follow on Twitter @rweingarten or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/AFTunion