Finding Books with Diverse Characters: It’s Harder than You Think. The problem, the need, and how you can help

By Angelique Jessup, Ph.D., Program Director, Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading/
Fund for Educational Excellence

“Nearly impossible.” “Like finding a needle in a haystack.” “Frustrating.”

These are just some of the comments the Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading (GLR) and the Fund for Educational Excellence recently heard from colleagues and partners discussing the availability of children’s books with diverse characters. While this conversation is not new to the field, a recent New York Times op ed, “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time,” echoed both the difficulty and frustration we experienced in our own recent book search.

Research shows that seeing characters that represent ones reality sparks connectivity and deepens interests and curiosity. Children of color are no different. However, GLR—a program of the Fund for Educational Excellence that aims to make sure all Baltimore City Public Schools students are reading on grade level by third grade—has experienced firsthand the issues outlined in the op ed: finding children’s books that show racially and culturally diverse characters is incredibly difficult. This needs to change.

As part of a new project (in partnership with Improving Education and City Schools) with six elementary schools designed to improve family engagement, increase summer learning, and build home libraries, we set out to find appropriate books to give every first grade student to encourage reading at home.

The task seemed simple enough: find a fun and engaging book for first grade students that included diverse characters. After hours of searching with incredible partners at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and City Schools, a frustrating truth surfaced: books that meet these criteria are few and far between. Our dilemma deepened as we expanded our search for bilingual books where we found an even starker dearth of options representing diverse characters. Why is it so hard? According to a February, 2017 NPR Code Switch article, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that only 12% of children’s books published in 2016 had characters who were people of color.

The call for more diversity in children’s books is getting louder and stronger. We were certainly able to find books that delved into historical topics like Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and how people of color have consistently overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. But, there just aren’t many books featuring diverse characters that are simply having fun and engaging in day to day life. 

Don’t get me wrong, these historical stories are incredibly important and need to be told to children (and as an African American mother of two young children, I am deeply grateful for these books). However, children of color deserve an array of books that span all topics—from silly to serious—and see illustrations that look like them and their communities.

We are not alone in this thinking. Groups like We Need Diverse Books and many others are pushing for quality books that are diverse in characters, topics and reading levels. GLR and the Fund are proud to be adding our voice to this call for greater diversity as an important step in encouraging reading for our City Schools students.

The good news is that while there are not nearly enough, diverse books do exist. With the help of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, GLR recently curated a list of diverse books for our 37 Little Free Libraries located throughout the city. Please check it out, and send us the names of other books that we should add to the list.

While you’re there, consider donating one of the books to a Little Free Library and be part of a movement that has given away over 60,000 books in the last 18 months to children living in book deserts. Or just buy one for a child in your life to help show publishers that the demand for diverse books is as real as the need to make sure all children can find themselves in the pages of a book.

Interested in learning more about GLR, how you can get involved, or other projects supporting children’s education at the Fund for Educational Excellence? Visit the GLR website or contact me at

Kirwan Commission: Accounting for Poverty in Education Funding

Last school year, our City came together in a tremendous push to close a $130M funding gap for Baltimore City Public Schools. Because of the voices of our students, parents, teachers, principals, and community leaders, our elected officials at the State and City level provided enough funding to reduce the gap to $30M and avoid the worst of the anticipated instructional and facilities impacts. But a $30M gap still has an impact on teaching and learning and conditions in schools, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Baltimore City Public Schools students and families were once again forced to accept less.

The reality is that the funds restored this year — and committed for the next three years — to minimize the gap are simply a short-term reprieve. We still have to solve the much larger issue of equitable education funding in the State of Maryland, and the next move lies with the Kirwan Commission. The commission, so named for its chair, Dr. Brit Kirwan, the former University of Maryland System Chancellor, was established in 2016 by the General Assembly. It is charged with recommending changes to the State’s education funding formula and will release its proposals this December.

While the Kirwan recommendations have not yet been made they may be informed by a report from a national firm, APA Consulting, concluding that Maryland should invest an additional $2.6 billion in its public schools. Most notably, the report advises increasing the State’s base per-pupil funding amount from $6,900 to $10,800, while decreasing the additional funding amounts – or weights – allotted for students in need of additional supports.

This recommendation to decrease funding weights for the students who need the most support should alarm all of us working to improve educational outcomes for our most vulnerable students in districts across Maryland, and especially here in Baltimore City. Daily, our students confront food insecurity and housing instability, mental and physical health challenges and violence– the effects of the concentrated poverty in which many of them live.

Inadequately addressed, these effects all come to bear in our public schools. Our educators strive to meet our students where they are – too often, where they are is hungry, tired, stressed, and sometimes traumatized. That’s part of why it costs more to serve our students. Increasing the base per-pupil funding for each student without also increasing the weights for students in need of additional support fails to recognize the significant impact of poverty in a child’s development and will not be enough to provide a truly equitable education.

The failure to fully close last year’s budget gap sent a message to City Schools students, unquestionably the most at-risk, high-need population in the State. It’s time we stopped saying to those who need us the most that they should accept less. The Kirwan Commission will issue its recommendations in December. Let’s make the case for our students to receive the funding they need to receive the type of education every child deserves.

Supporting Baltimore City Public Schools Principals

ffee_3-30-17_0135On Monday, May 22nd, the Fund for Educational Excellence will host the second annual Heart of the School Awards celebrating the dedication and tireless efforts of our Baltimore City Public Schools principals. With the support of City Schools, as well as business, foundation and community partners, this special night will recognize ten exceptional leaders who have demonstrated exemplary innovation, execution, and leadership, building strong school cultures.

Since our successful inaugural event last year, I am often asked why the Fund decided to make this commitment to a principal recognition program. The answer is easy. We think school leadership is absolutely critical to the success of any school. Every research study on turn-around schools or high performing schools says the same thing: it can’t be done without a dynamic principal leading the way.

We see this time and time again in our work where a strong, committed principal is a pre-condition for success for implementing new programs. We hear it in the community discussions we conduct for our Analysis and Engagement studies. And it is re-iterated in the 587 nominations we received this year from teachers, parents, students and community members for 84 individual City Schools principals.

Principals have one of the toughest jobs you can imagine. The responsibility they have for students, teachers and educational outcomes is enormous, particularly in high-need, urban centers like Baltimore where they are constantly asked to do more. They deserve every bit of recognition and support that we can give them.

Please help us celebrate all our 181 City Schools principals by buying a ticket or making a donation today to the Heart of the School Awards on Monday, May 22nd at the historic Hippodrome Theatre. All proceeds go to our Principal Support Fund that awards up to $5,000 to principals for innovative projects or opportunities that benefit their students, teachers and schools. To-date, we’ve awarded 26 grants totaling over $100,000 for projects ranging from classroom technology to student field trips, professional development, and parent engagement.

Thank you for sharing our commitment to principals and we look forward to seeing you next Monday, May 22nd.

Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools

We are excited to share our latest report, Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools, looking at school choice in Baltimore City Public Schools.

city-college1Calculated Choices is an outgrowth of our 2015 report, Building A Bright Future, which explored how our high school students prepare for college, and the disparities in experience students have depending on which high school they attend. With school choice now an established part of our local education landscape, we wanted to better understand how students and their parents make decisions about to which schools they apply. Along the way, the critical role that middle school plays in this process came into sharp focus as both the options available and the choices families make in 5th grade influence students’ secondary education.

As in our prior reports, this study merges analysis of local and national data with insights from 418 students and parents across 41 communities about how they experience the school choice process. What we learned is that our choice system in its current form has yet to correct the existing inequities.

The inequity is seen in the different pathways that are generally available to families in higher-income vs. lower-income neighborhoods. It starts in middle school where students in higher-income areas have greater access to specialized academic programming. The academic boost they get from such programming helps them earn higher composite scores, increasing their chances of admission to our city’s selective ‘entrance criteria’ high schools over those of their lower-income peers.

However, Calculated Choices also shows that parents and students across all income levels share the same goals and want the same things from our schools with six main themes emerging from our conversations. Participants want strong academics across all schools and geographic areas combined with supportive, safe school cultures led by teachers and staff. When navigating the school choice process, students and parents need information on admission criteria, school offerings and the application steps, as well as consistent school-based support before and during the choice process.

These insights offer our community a roadmap for how to improve school choice going forward. We hope you will take some time to review Calculated Choices, and check out our Baltimore Sun Op Ed.  Please reach out to us via email or social media to keep the conversation going.

Keeping a Promise to Today’s Kindergarteners: Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading

FFEE_3-25-11_0032 - cropWhen our city’s newest students start kindergarten this year, they and their families will feel the same sense of hope and excitement that always comes with the beginning of the school year. What they may not realize is that they also represent a promise that their city will provide them with the educational opportunities they need to reach one of the most important achievement benchmarks of their school careers: reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

This is the goal of the Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a citywide coalition committed to doubling the number of students reading on grade level by 2020. To get a sense of the scope of the problem, consider this: only 14 percent of Baltimore City fourth graders scored at the proficient or advanced reading level on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That number should compel all of us to join with the Campaign this school year in thinking about what needs to be happening in our city and school district to allow our new kindergarteners, and all our children, to meet this third grade reading goal. For instance:

  • Working with schools and city agencies to offer quality, affordable pre-k options—especially in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty— and reaching out to parents to encourage them to enroll their children in these programs, so that our youngest students enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • Providing a variety of safe, fun, convenient, and educational out of school opportunities for students during the school year and over the summer.
  • Giving parents the information they need to understand and track what their children should know at each grade level.
  • Asking good questions about what is happening in our schools, and holding teachers and school leaders accountable for student achievement.
  • Encouraging students to read independently and with other adults for at least 15 minutes every day of school and vacation.
  • Communicating the need to attend school every day and on time. A recent study by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) found that students who missed 2 or more days in September were significantly more likely to be chronically absent for the year, a clear demonstration of the critical importance of establishing good attendance habits in the first 30 days of school.

Certainly, reading on third grade level is just one of many goals we need to have as we start this school year. Implementing Common Core, focusing on college readiness, improving the value proposition of high school, the 21st Century Building project, and building a stronger pool of teachers and school leaders are other critical district priorities that come to mind. But, think of how much easier many of those goals will be to achieve if we can start by saying that we were able to successfully change the educational experience that these kindergarteners, and all those that follow, had in their first four years of school.

The Fund is proud to serve as the host organization for the Campaign and we encourage all of you to get involved in this effort. Check out the website, and become part of the coalition by registering to receive newsletters, and by following the Campaign on Facebook and Twitter. Remember that the power and success of a collective action initiative rests on all of us.