One phrase pulled out of context says so much: “zip codes will not decide our children’s future and fate.”
These words come from Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, in a letter of commendation to the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education. This week the two federal agencies jointly launched the Book-Rich Environments Initiative with the aim to boost educational outcomes for children living in public and HUD-assisted housing. Smith notes: “Today’s launch … serves as a powerful affirmation … to leveling the playing field so that zip codes will not decide our children’s future and fate.” 
The initiative will bring high quality books and other literacy tools to 4 million children and their families living in HUD-assisted housing. Public housing authorities and local library partners throughout the nation have already committed to participating in the initiative, which centers on three components:
- book distribution—free, high quality, diverse books provided to children and families
- partnership building—strategic partnerships established between the local public housing authority, local public library, and literacy partners to develop and deliver programming that will improve educational outcomes
- library engagement—children and families engaged in reading and literacy activities offered by library and literacy partners
- Publishers will make large donations of books and the National Book Foundation will expand its free afterschool program, BookUp, which has already donated over 30,000 books to young people. By the end of 2017, the number will expand to 300,000+ books.
- The Urban Libraries Council will work to ensure that kids and their families have books in their home, books and technology at their neighborhood library, and support needed to become strong readers.
- The Campaign for Grade Level Reading (CGR), a coalition of 240+ communities in 42 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands —and funders, nonprofit partners, business leaders, federal and state government agencies— will participate with CGR’s focus that many more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career, and active citizenship.
Ralph Smith invokes “zip code” in his letter about the new initiative because zip code make a difference in educational opportunity —and has become a recognized shorthand reference to the problem behind the initiative as demonstrated in these examples:
- A child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in— Megan Slack and Alicia Oken on President Obama’s 2014 announcement of “Promise Zone” locations, an initiative that partners with local communities and businesses to create jobs, expand access to educational opportunities, and spur economic mobility and security
- Send your kids to a good school, no matter what ZIP code you live in —First Lady Michelle Obama
- Your zip code should not decide your fate —Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer
- A student’s zip code should not dictate their educational opportunities—Washington Education School Funding Association
- Student Success Comes Down to Zip Code— Mark Elgart blog, The Huffington Post
- A child’s zip code should not dictate the quality of education he or she receives—Congressman Erik Paulsen
- No child’s future should be determined by their color, economic status, or zip code —Brian L. Pauling, national president of 100 Black Men of America
- Your ZIP Code Should Not Determine Your Success —Kira Davis, guess blogger in Forbes
How high are the stakes behind the zip code problem driving the Book-Rich Environments Initiative? High, very high.
Two-thirds of children nationwide—and more than 80% of those from low-income families—are not proficient readers by the end of third grade. This has significant consequences for each child, for their communities, and for the nation. If we don’t reverse this problem, we’re not likely to end intergenerational poverty, close the achievement gap, and reduce school dropout rates. And, far fewer of the next generation will be prepared to succeed in a global economy, participate in higher education, or enter military and civilian service.
This is the problem the new initiative is working to combat.
Implementation is moving quickly. The work starts in 35 communities across the country next month. Public housing authorities will partner with local libraries organized by the Urban Libraries Council to host community book distribution events throughout the year. Public housing residents will have access to a diverse set of high quality books secured by the National Book Foundation. These distribution events will also serve as a platform to strengthen and launch new local partnerships with libraries, public housing authorities, and nonprofits, organized by the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, that can also help ensure continued access to high quality literacy resources.
The announcement of the Book-Rich Environments Initiative is an important literacy effort that adds to current efforts to “build bridges between school and home, and improve educational and life outcomes for kids and families in HUD -assisted housing, including joint efforts to address and eliminate chronic absenteeism, find ways to support college students with unmet financial needs, and create more summer opportunities for young people.”
Kudos to this promising literacy initiative for taking on the zip code problem affecting so many children.
Membership association of North America’s leading public library systems. ULC libraries, located in the U.S. and Canada, as public sector institutions comprise a varied mix of revenue and governance structures and serve communities with populations of differing size – from 30,000 to more than eight million. The libraries serve people of all ages. They are community centers for education and lifelong learning; economic and workforce development; health, wellness and public safety and environmental sustainability. ULC libraries bridge the digital divide by providing public access to technology services (e.g., digital media, mobile applications, e-reading, other modes of enrichment that technology makes possible). See: http://www.urbanlibraries.org/
 CGR focuses on school readiness, quality teaching, chronic absence from school, summer learning, and engaging parents as a child’s first teachers.