TAMPA — Jileane DeMaria and Jocelyn Jimenez, safety patrol officers at Woodbridge Elementary School, didn't know what they would find when they toured the school's new Reading Oasis.
Cardboard books for kindergartners? Musty-smelling library books with pages torn?
They were surprised to find their favorite titles: Harry Potter, Inkheart, The Thief Lord.
"I see plenty of books I like," said Jocelyn, 11. "And they're new!"
The brightly painted center, with child-sized bookshelves and bean-bag chairs, is the first of its kind in Hillsborough County but a concept that is catching on around the country.
The program represents a partnership between Scholastic Book Fairs and Kiwanis International. Other organizations typically join the efforts, as well. At Woodbridge, the school district's after-school program, called HOST, is contributing many of the books and furnishings. At a Broward County center, police officers read to the children, said Dillon Kalkhurst, Scholastic's director of corporate and community alliances.
Reading Oasis centers are typically opened in lower-income schools with the goal of getting books in the hands of children who might not have them at home. There will be a checkout system, said Woodbridge principal Christine Hanjian. But no one will chase after a child who keeps his or her book.
"The books are there to kind of be leaked out over the year," Kalkhurst said Monday at the center's ribbon-cutting ceremony. The missing volumes can be replaced through incentive programs schools join when they host the book fairs.
Located in Town 'N Country, Woodbridge serves an ethnically mixed community that includes many immigrant families. There is a large homeless population, Hanjian said. More than 80 percent of the students are low-income.
Among Title I schools, which get federal assistance because of poverty, Woodbridge is in the top tier of science scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Hanjian said.
But it's not so strong in reading, with more than half the third- and fourth-graders scoring below level this year.
"We want to build up their reading capacity," Hanjian said.
In addition to dispensing books, the center could have other uses, Hanjian said. Community organizations can meet there, or hold English language classes in the evenings, she said. Parents who don't have computers might be able to come by one evening a week to use the school's.
Or they can simply spend time with their children. "Some of our kids need a safe place to come and be read to," said Nicole Rideout, the school's media specialist.
Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] of (813) 226-3356.