A Piscataway literacy initiative that harnessed community support and corporate sponsorship to provide free books to children and encourage a love of reading among students and families has garnered national acclaim.

The PiscatawayReads program was honored last year as a national first place Magna award-winner by the National School Boards Association.

The program began in 2010 when Piscataway district staff realized that many students and families weren’t able to buy books. PiscatawayReads provides students in grades pre-K through 12 with free books, along with “think aloud” bookmarks with questions to help guide the reading process.

Book discussions are held in class, the themes of the books are explored and teachers use the reading materials to support daily learning activities. The PiscatawayReads activities conclude with an evening event for students, parents, staff and community members.

The board of education played a big role in the development of this program. Members of the board of education, and staff in the district knew that a community-based program could address the issues; they also knew they needed to attract private donations to pay for the program.

The school board’s curriculum committee led the development of the program, along with members of the board’s community relations committee. Both groups, chaired by board members, produced signs and banners displayed throughout the town.

Annual Theme Each year, there is a specific theme. The theme of this year’s project, “Justice: Standing Up for What’s Right,” combines fiction and non-fiction works and crosses the content areas of literature, social justice, history, and politics in age-appropriate ways.

The literacy program is supported by corporate sponsors that include Brown & Brown Benefit Advisors, Scholastic Books, United Way, and Johnson & Johnson Health Care Systems.

This year’s “Justice” theme focuses, at various grade levels, on being fair, working together, understanding diversity, embracing differences, and eliminating barriers so every person can achieve. Book selections include “Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon,” by Patty Lovell; “Freedom on the Menu,” by Carole Boston Weatherford; and “Crash,” by Jerry Spinelli.

The culminating program, held in April of each year, features the high school debate and mock trial teams, folk singer Spook Handy and school board attorney, David B. Rubin. Parent workshops also focus on related topics.

Middle school students work with Piscataway Schools Television (PSTV), the high school TV studio, to create a documentary of the event, which attracts over 1,000 participants.

“The members of the Board of Education Curriculum Committee, comprised of board members, citizens, and staff, work hand-in-hand to choose the annual theme, secure donations, and plan special events that reinforce the topics the students are reading,” noted William J. Irwin, president of Piscataway Board of Education.

More than 700 books are donated each year for the program, and Johnson & Johnson employees also serve as tutors and volunteer readers for students in Piscataway schools.

“In our personal and professional lives, it takes a lot of courage to stand up for what’s right, to choose an action that isn’t popular, and to face peer pressure,” says Teresa M. Rafferty, superintendent of schools. “This year, our students are being exposed to literature with main characters who make these difficult decisions.”

Kaitlin Phillips is the public information officer/webmaster at Piscataway school district. She can be reached by email and by telephone at (732) 572-2289, extension 2582.