Teacher Kalia Flocker holds books she bought for her classroom library at Lamb Elementary on Sept. 28, 2021 after a crowdfunding campaign. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Kalia Flocker has spent years building up her classroom library for students at Lamb Elementary. But when she met her second graders at the start of the school year, she realized she didn’t have the best books to help them learn to read.

Flocker, who’s taught at the northeast Salem elementary school for five years, said her students returning in-person were mostly reading at a kindergarten level because of disruptions to their education during the Covid pandemic.

“We knew that having half of our time in class and half of them online just was going to impact students who were really young, but we prioritize their health because I think that's most important,” Flocker said, referring to last spring when the district held hybrid online and in-person classes.

She thought about seeking money from the school’s supply fund to get books for them and paying the balance out of her own pocket. But Flocker had seen other teachers raise money using crowdfunding and decided to give it a try.

“Normally I only have a few kids who are reading this low so I don’t have a ton of books at kindergarten level. I need to get more so that my students can have books that they can read on their own and find confidence and success with,” Flocker said in a video she posted on GoFundMe Sept. 18.

Flocker expected she might raise $20 from the website. She shared the fundraiser on her Facebook page.

Within a few hours, she said people had contributed $250, her original goal. She upped the ask to $500 and raised $520 within 24 hours, allowing her to buy more than 80 new books for her classroom.

“It was completely shocking how generous people were,” she said.

Flocker’s students aren’t alone.

Lamb principal Cherice Cochrane said when the school reviewed student reading scores from classroom assessments in the spring, they found this year’s class of second graders were the furthest behind.

Cochrane speculated that’s because the class has had every year of school so far disrupted by Covid.

“Those are the kids that they left early their kindergarten year and they came back late their first grade year,” she said. When classes did resume in-person in the spring, “it was also only two days a week in person because of hybrid schedule. So, I think that that has a lot to do with it.”

Similar patterns across the district led district administrators to allocate a significant portion of federal Covid relief funds - $6.9 million this year - toward hiring 54 additional teachers to allow for smaller class sizes in kindergarten through second grade, said Suzanne West, the district’s director of strategic initiatives.

“Our concern was we would have a large cadre of incoming kinders and incoming first graders who maybe had never been in a school environment, a physical school environment,” West said. “We felt like we really needed to make an effort to reduce class sizes at the primary level.”

At Lamb, Cochrane said the data review led to her hiring another second grade teacher using the additional funding so teachers like Flocker have smaller class sizes and can focus on helping kids get caught up.

The books Flocker bought are mostly from the “Danny” series, a collection of short educational books for early readers that follow the adventures of Danny, a friendly yellow Labrador retriever.

The books cover a variety of reading levels and follow Danny’s adventures as he celebrates Halloween, visits a castle and meets other canine friends.

She was also able to buy a few books for the school library.

“I'm just super excited. I didn't have that many books that they could just pick up and read, and they've been picking them up and just being like, ‘Can I take these four to my desk?’” Flocker said.

Since she created the fundraiser, Flocker said she’s seen substantial improvement in her students’ reading levels. Many, she said, have some recollection of words and concepts they would normally have mastered in first grade, so they cover the material they’re behind on quickly.

Now, she said, their reading is moving beyond simple “sight words” - basic words that kids learn to recognize without sounding them out.

“What I am seeing right now in class is they're picking up words so fast. Today they were reading, as I wrote it, my objective for the lesson,” Flocker said.

Flocker and Cochrane said the response to the fundraiser shows them that people are looking for ways to support schools right now. Both urged people to reach out to their local schools or community partners already working with schools to see what needs are unmet.

“The community has a great want to support and sometimes if you don't know exactly where, then it shows up more sporadically,” Flocker said. “What stood out was how quickly people responded and wanted to donate.”

Teacher Kalia Flocker holds books she bought for her classroom library at Lamb Elementary on Sept. 28, 2021 after a crowdfunding campaign. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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