Elementary school students receive donated books for the holidays from their USC student tutors
Young students from James A. Foshay Learning Center pose with the new books they received as holiday gifts from their USC student tutors. Photos courtesy of Tina Koneazny.

Elementary school students receive donated books for the holidays from their USC student tutors

The holiday gift giving, coordinated by the Joint Educational Project (JEP), offered donated books to 300 K-5 students served by JEP’s ReadersPLUS program.
ByLaura Paisley

Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz once said, “Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone.”

Recently, USC student tutors from the Joint Educational Project (JEP) did just that when they distributed 600 books to students in kindergarten through fifth grade at seven of USC’s “Family of Schools” around the University Park campus.

The USC students are participants in ReadersPLUS, an America Reads/America Counts literacy and math tutoring program offered under the auspices of USC Dornsife. The books were generously donated by the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, with whom JEP commenced a partnership in 2014.

The tutors have been working with about 300 young students throughout the semester, and each personally selected a book as a holiday gift for every child to read over the winter break. In addition to getting their own new books, students also got to choose another one to share with a sibling or friend.

“Our USC students have a relationship with their kids, making the gift-giving even more special,” said Tina Koneazny, associate director of administration and educational outreach for JEP. “The tutors know the kids’ interests, and each tutor selected a unique book that they thought their children would enjoy and personally wrapped copies for each.”

Melanie Alvarez, a junior at USC Dornsife studying cognitive science and psychology, is a tutor and site coordinator at John W. Mack Elementary School.

“The children in the schools we serve often come from disadvantaged households, and because of this may not always spend the holidays as comfortably or happily as some,” she said. “Therefore, it is with great devotion that I meet with my tutors to wrap each individual book, and with great joy that we hand them out on our last day of the semester at their school.”

In addition to receiving donated books from the Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation at the end of the 2014-15 school year to read over the summer, the elementary students also receive them at the holidays. The mission of the foundation is to get books into the hands of kids, Koneazny said.

“The foundation realizes that so many kids don’t have books at home, and if they don’t, how are the children going to become strong readers? I was really excited by [Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation Executive Director] Fran Morris Rosman’s offer of extra books for siblings this year because I thought, ‘What a nice message to send to our kids, that holidays are a time for receiving but also a time for giving,’” Koneazny added.

A woman and child read a book in a classroom.
Junior Melanie Alvarez and one of the young students she tutors enjoying his new book.

Alvarez said she has seen this joyous gift giving event happen at her school site for the past two years, and she is looking forward to the continuation of the tradition.

“The students are happy with their books, but it is the sincere thank you from the teachers that touches my heart,” she said. “They understand that our gift is not only a Christmas present, but also an opportunity for them to continue to practice their reading outside of school.”

Because the students form a special bond with their tutors, she said, they see the gift of the books as a thank you for all the work they do with their tutors. They are particularly interested in these books, too, because they are their own personal possession.

The ReadersPLUS tutors work with their students one-on-one during the school day, helping two to five individual students with reading or math each week, spending two hours with each student. There is also an after-school program that the tutors manage, where they work with students in small groups, engaging them in other academic enrichment activities like the Wonderkids science curriculum and the Little Yoginis program.

The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation was created in 1993 by Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, in order to fulfill her desires to use the fruits of her success to help people of all races, cultures and beliefs. According to the foundation’s website, Fitzgerald wanted to foster a love of reading as well as a love of music, and she hoped to provide assistance to the at-risk and disadvantaged members of our communities — assistance that would enable them to achieve a better quality of life.

“In the end, reading is truly a magical experience. What better time to give the magic of reading than during the most magical time of the year?” said Jonell Yablonski, a master’s student from USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who is also a ReadersPLUS tutor.

“This experience has provided me with the memorable opportunity to watch my students revel in delight as they received a little holiday joy they could bring home and share with family and friends.”