At Hapeville Elementary, free books for impoverished students

It was Halloween and Hapeville Elementary School principal Jennifer Couch was dressed as a Siamese cat with the ears of a Chihuahua while two Porsche automobiles led a parade of costumed kids around the school ball field. But that wasn’t what made this day remarkable.

More remarkably, this was the first day of a book giveaway program that would appear to be unlike any in metro Atlanta at a school where most of the families of the school’s 659 students live on the margin.

About 30 Hapeville students are homeless, according to Fulton County schools. Ninty-three percent come from homes so economically strapped that they’re eligible for free and reduced lunches.

From now on, every month — and on their birthdays — every one of the Hapeville students will be given a book to keep, take home and, Couch says hopefully, build personal libraries.

The books were donated from parents and community sponsors including Porsche, which is developing its public outreach in advance of moving its headquarters to Hapeville in 2014, and the local Hilton hotel.

Couch’s daughter gave her the idea this year shortly after Couch became the new Hapeville principal with a mission of strengthening ties with the community and engaging parents. What better way to engage someone than with something they could literally put their hands on — a book and a free one at that?

So far, said Couch, the response has been phenomenal. By the first week of November, more than 2,000 books had been donated and the stockpile was building.

“I’ve got 400 in my garage,” she said, still in her cat costume as she watched the Halloween morning student procession circle the ball field.

The students all carried books and were dressed as the books’ characters, such as Rapunzel and The Cat in The Hat. Couch was dressed as Skippyjon Jones. A video of Couch reading from the book played on classroom screens throughout the school the same morning.

Two days before, Porsche CFO Thierry Kartochian showed up at the school with about 300 donated books and read to first graders from “Officer Buckle and Gloria.” The students were as captivated by Kartochian’s French accent as they were by the book he read, said Couch.

Kartochian said Porsche plans to donate books to the school every quarter from now on. Hilton human relations coordinator Maria Cotto said the hotel has delivered several hundred books to the school, all of them donated by about 100 Hilton employees.

“We think it’s important because it’s making a difference in a child’s life, for children who are less fortunate than at other schools,” said Cotto. “The children have something they can take home and call their own.”

Another key to making it work, said Couch, is the students get to pick what they want to read.

This morning, a class of first graders were sitting, reading and clutching their choices — “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “The Puffin Baby,” “Who Really Killed Cock Robin?” — in a classroom converted into a distribution center, where stacks of books were arranged by category (Mystery, Bedtime Stories, Fairy Tale Fiction).

“I’ve never had this much fun in school, even when I was a kid,” said Couch.

Parent Roxann Gann said the book giveaway has already helped transform life at home with her third- and fifth-grade sons, Lee and Christopher. She’s made a custom of reading with her children nightly, she said. Now her children have more say over the material.

“One of them brought a book home on animals. He’s a real animal freak,” said Gann. “So we’re reading about that. The other brought one that is more comic. I just never know what the next one is going to be, which is what makes it so wonderful.”