“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his . . .” – Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
If you can finish the above sentence, chances are you’ve read this story many times – perhaps as a child yourself, or perhaps to your own children – so often that you and your child can recite it from heart. Tattered, dog-eared, and well-loved, it’s the book you pulled aside from all the other books when you had your yard sale, because it’s . . . special. You have a connected love for this book, and thus will treasure it always.
Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) teacher Denise Corbo has such stories on her own bookshelf at home. As a SEARCH teacher in the Gifted Program at Horizon Elementary in Sterling and Steuart W. Weller Elementary in Ashburn, she has witnessed the powerful effect strong early literacy skills have on overall academic achievement.
Corbo has channeled her more than 28 years of teaching experience into a fast-growing national program that is measurably changing the lives of young readers. Founder, director, and president of StoryBook Treasures (SBT), a nonprofit organization based in Ashburn, Va., Corbo has watched her dream of bolstering the academic outcomes of the neediest students transform into a functioning reality.
Observing the behaviors of kindergarten students in her classroom, Corbo noticed that young readers often choose to read specific beloved books repeatedly. Children take great joy in the melodic repetition of text. Even greater is their pride when they recite the memorized verses while running tiny fingers along the pages.
It made her think back to her own childhood. “Books were not always a part of my world,” said Corbo. “My father met my mother, a native Austrian, while enlisted in the US Army in Germany. Although I had some books at home, we had little money, both of my parents worked two jobs, and my mother was an English language learner. There was scarce time or opportunity to read and enjoy books at home.”
“My first memorable experience with books was when I entered school,” Corbo explained. “My favorite books were those my teacher and school librarian read aloud to the class. I loved reading those books over and over because I understood the storyline. Even though I was not able to read every word, I was able to retell the story by looking at the pictures and recalling my teacher’s voice.”
“Once a story was introduced to the class, everyone in the class wanted that book,” Corbo said. “I had to put my name on the librarian’s long checkout list for that specific story and would long for my turn to take it home to share with my parents. Those were the books I cherished most from my childhood.”
When she realized the same scenario was replaying in her own classroom, she knew she must find a way to ensure that every child has access to quality books both at home and at school. Gifted intellect has no racial or financial barriers, but a lack of resources, opportunities, and exposure can stunt an otherwise brilliant potential. Corbo became determined to find a way to bridge the growing literacy gap in young readers – a gap that gets wider each year a student is in school.
Research provides evidence of the importance of early childhood literacy. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a division of the U.S. Department of Education, children who participate in reading at home share substantial academic advantage over those who do not. Statistically, those children at an early age are better able to recognize and identify letters and sounds and write simple words.
NCES maintains that children who live below the poverty line are less likely to be read to daily than their peers, and the Educational Testing Service has reported that the more types of reading materials there are in the home, the higher students are in reading proficiency.
The National Education Association (NEA) reports on its website that in a study of fourth-grade reading scores, “where parent involvement is low, the classroom mean average reading score is 46 points below the national average. Where parental involvement is high, the classroom scores 28 points above the national average – a gap of 74 points.”
Corbo thought hard about ways to close such gaps. The solution, she decided, was simple: Get the most loved children’s titles into the hands and homes of the neediest children at the youngest age possible so they can form strong connections with those books, which in turn fosters a life-long love of reading and learning.
Books and materials cost money, though. Corbo had a detailed program in mind, but no funding. In 2010 she decided to build resources by answering an ad in Craig’s List for a part-time limousine driver. That summer employment opportunity delivered more than she could have imagined.
The person who hired her to drive his fleet of limos was businessman Tom Klarner (since deceased), owner and president of Best Checks Inc., in Dulles, Va. During their drives, Klarner and Corbo discussed her plans to develop an organization that would deliver lesson plans, books, and materials to the neediest schools, so teachers could help children connect with the books in an educational setting. Her dream was to help children pridefully develop their own personal libraries, which they would then take home to share with their families.
Klarner was an established and successful entrepreneur. He offered countless hours of professional advice to Corbo about how to best frame and structure her organization. Corbo used all of her earnings to launch StoryBook Treasures and apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with Virginia and the Internal Revenue Service. By 2012, SBT received official status as a nonprofit organization and began receiving donations.
The first SBT pilot program was introduced in 2013 at a Virginia Title I Elementary School, Sugarland Elementary in Sterling, reaching 100 children, 78% who lived in poverty. Today the program has spread to 24 schools in six states, serving more than 3,000 students, engaging more than 125 teachers, and giving away more than 15,000 books. With schools in Alaska and Key West, Fl., Corbo spread her hands and says her dream is to fill in all the schools between the two. The only thing holding her back is funding, and SBT currently has a waiting list of schools wishing to participate.
The structured SBT program is based on five shipments to each classroom within an academic year. Those shipments include a SBT bag for each child for their personal library collection, books for each child to own and eventually take home, fun “treasures” for each child, such as plush animals, small toys, or keepsakes that are associated with and complement the books, and all lesson plans and related materials that will help the children form strong connections with each book. In addition, SBT provides on-site professional development programs for the participating teachers and continuous consulting and technical program support.
Her plans to expand? “Yes! I learn so much every day about the nonprofit world, but there never seems to be enough time to do everything I want to accomplish,” said Corbo. “SBT is my passion – it consumes all of my free time after work.” The support staff, including herself, is 100 % volunteer, without compensation. Until she retires next year, Corbo is relying on already successful support via word of mouth.
Packing events to prepare shipments for recipient schools is also completely fueled by volunteers. Corbo has tapped into the goodwill and muscle power of local Loudoun County high schools, where students, parents, and staff unite to make great things happen.
Her many generous donors (too numerous to completely list, but available on her website at www.storybooktreasures.org), include local families and businesses, as well as national foundations and organizations, such as the Gertz Family Fund, Neal T. Turtell, the Giordano Family, the Renschler Family, the Kathryn J. Zugby Charitable Grant, the Nora Roberts Foundation, the Loudoun Education Foundation, the John Edward Fowler Memorial Foundation, the Citrus County Education Foundation, Bright House Networks, JustWorld International, Amazon Smile, Global Giving, Best Checks Inc., and so many more.
Corbo’s greatest heartache is having to put a school on a waiting list for lack of funding. The cost of materials for participation in the SBT program is approximately $50 per child. 100% of all donations go towards the purchase of supplies and cost of training. She encourages all interested to check out her website www.storybooktreasures.org for information on how to help, either with business expertise, financial support, or practical/physical support with packing events. Everyone is welcome on her journey to advance early childhood literacy.
Once a school signs up with SBT, the task of finding funding falls upon the school itself, but Corbo does everything within her means to assist. In her hours after teaching, she is learning all she can about what public resources are available, specifically for Title I schools.
“I cannot rest if there are children waiting who can benefit from my program,” says Corbo. This is not about me; it is not about profit. It is all about helping young children get hooked into reading by providing personal libraries they will love, memorize, and treasure.” There are no rocking chairs waiting for Corbo in her retirement. “I will be so thankful to have more time to advance this mission,” she beams, placing both hands over her heart.