By Dustin DuFort Petty
With the support of the East Lansing Educational Foundation (ELEF), teachers in East Lansing’s six elementary schools are building classroom libraries that, according to the new plan, will allow each “student who enters their classroom should feel seen and know they are represented in some way.”
The Diverse Book Initiative was developed earlier this year through the combined efforts of the ELEF and administration at East Lansing Public Schools (ELPS). Teachers are invited to submit grants each year to ELEF to fund initiatives the district itself doesn’t fund.
Julie Thomas-Beckett, president of the ELEF, explained to ELi how this particular initiative was born.
“We noticed that several teachers had applied for the grants so they could purchase diverse books for their classrooms,” Thomas-Beckett said. “The district came to us and said they were looking at the same issue. So, we decided to work together.”
For the first year of the three-year initiative, the district put up $20,000 and the ELEF gave $15,000, allowing each K5 educator to purchase about $300 in books for their classroom libraries. Most of the books have already arrived, with a few titles on backorder due to supply issues.
Glenn Mitchum, assistant superintendent of ELPS, explained the reasoning behind the book purchases.
“It was super clear that students should be given mirrors in literature to see themselves and they need windows so they can see other cultures,” he said. “And we saw our teachers consistently writing grants to ELEF to procure more diverse literature into classroom libraries. So we thought that maybe we needed to do this on a much larger scale [and] districtwide.”
Klaudia Burton has been ELPS’s Director of Equity and Social Justice since 2021 and worked with a districtwide Diverse Books Committee to review book titles provided by classroom teachers, music and art educators, special education professionals, and others.
“We ended up with more than 300 titles that ranged from age zero to the fifth grade,” Burton said, “creating a slideshow with each book that had information about the books, covers and links to read-alouds, if available.”
The district ordered the books from Socialight Society in Lansing and Detroit Book City in Lathrup Village, bookstores owned by Black women. More than 2,000 books were purchased, all from a list of 311 book titles compiled by the Diverse Books Committee.
This initiative follows an earlier effort to rework the ninth grade curriculum at the high school to include Black authors.
Dana Watson is a member of the East Lansing City Council and a former member of a parent-led equity team at Marble Elementary. She is happy with this step toward greater inclusion.
“We understand the importance of books so children can see similarities [between them and the characters in the books],” she said. “I think it’s an awesome step. Hopefully there’s more and bigger things to come after this initiative.”
“Buying [a] diverse curriculum shouldn’t be this extra special one-time thing,” Mitchum said. “It should just be what we do. Because it’s not like new teachers walk into their classrooms and find a library already there. That’s why we felt as a district that we wanted to help our teachers and we are grateful that [the] ELEF agreed.”
The ELEF has been around since 1984, building an endowment of approximately $1.4 million to supplement education in the district’s classrooms.
“From that, we have between $40,000 and $60,000 to give out in grants each year,” Thomas-Beckett said.
“We have the pleasure of helping build tomorrow’s community,” she added. “Whether it’s music, theater, robotics, STEM, or Model UN, it’s really cool to see what’s happening in our schools. I have two children that have graduated from [East Lansing] schools, and now I get to help everyone’s children and not just my own.”