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Omaha Magazine

Calling Dibs on Childhood Literacy: Omaha Program Wins National Book foundation Award

Mar 01, 2021 11:35AM ● By Daisy Hutzell Rodman
David Orrick leans on children's bookshelf

Photography by Bill Sitzmann    

Punk-rock icon Patti Smith and New York Times bestselling novelist Jesmyn Ward can boast one thing in common with Omahan David Orrick—an award from the National Book Foundation. Smith won the 2010 National Book Award in nonfiction, Ward won the 2017 National Book Award in fiction, and Orrick won the 2020 Innovations in Reading Prize for his organization and program Delivering Infinite Book Shelves for Kids.

“Access is first and foremost when working to ensure that all young people have an opportunity to become lifelong readers,” Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said in a press release. “DIBS for Kids’ creative technological approach to meeting young people where they are and ensuring access to physical books for home use helps to remind how important it is that reading is not seen as a separate, siloed school activity, but also as a meaningful, joyful part of our everyday lives.”

Orrick, a former first-grade teacher, created the program DIBS for Kids after seeing a need for increased literacy rates in his classroom. An architect by degree, he pursued his passion for education  in 2008, a couple of years after graduating from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as a volunteer for Teach for America in New Orleans. The committed educator not only taught, he visited the homes of his students, who often lived in poverty, and he made each of his 29 students take home a book to read each night. 

“I think there’s a lot of individuals who have seen all the research about education being the great equalizer,” Orrick said. “If you have a student reading proficiently by the end of third grade, that kid is at a great advantage…Basic literacy skills is one of the hardest things for teachers to develop without support. I learned early on that one great way is to have the students have really great reading experiences at night.”

He put hours into the program, keeping track of books going in and out of his classroom, making sure students left with a book in their hands, visiting students’ homes, and other details. His efforts resulted in increased literacy.

“I had a student named Raul in my first-grade classroom, and he had a brother in the same school. Through my home visits, not only were they reading every night, by the end of the year, Raul was reading above grade level,” Orrick said, mentioning that a sibling who had not read much at an earlier age struggled in school. “His older brother remained at the same reading level, in fact, they had to hold him back a year. There was no difference but that the education system caught Raul earlier and not the brother.”

The program worked, but it was so exhausting that Orrick began to brainstorm how to get students to read on a nightly basis with less hand-holding. Following his two-year term with Teach for America, he came back to Omaha in 2011, and that’s when his technical mind ignited. He spent six weeks designing a take-home reading project that would help teachers without asking them to take on more work, then presented the idea to the principal at Fontenelle Forest Elementary, where his mother worked. One first-grade classroom agreed to try the program.

Orrick raised funds to equip elementary classrooms with high-interest, leveled books that students get to take home every night. Later that year, a teacher stopped him as he was delivering books and said “I want to get in on your program.” In 2012, all 13 first-grade classrooms participated in the program. 

Three years later, Adams Elementary Schools had gotten wind of this program that was increasing reading skills and students’ interest in reading, and wanted in on the action. The Literacy Project has stated that 61% of students living in poverty don’t have a single age-appropriate book in their home. DIBS’ goal is to get into all 46 elementary schools in the Omaha Public Schools district that have a poverty rate of over 70%. As of the 2020-2021 school year, they were in 13 schools.

The early program involved Orrick sitting in a classroom and filling in a spreadsheet while students stood in line to check out a book they had chosen from a tote bin full of books in a variety of reading levels. By the time Adams Elementary began participating, the program had expanded to put more control into the hands of students.

“We had a lot of whiteboarding sessions about how can we make this more fun for kids, how can we make it easier for teachers,” Orrick said. The answer came in the form of a computer program.

Orrick found the answer in web-based QR technology. Each classroom has two computers that the teacher logs in to. The first computer shows a camera to which the students hold up the QR code in order to check in the books. The check-in triggers their student dashboards, which shows them how many books they’ve read, and, more importantly to the students, how many badges they have earned. The badges are simple for kids age 6 to 8 to recognize, such as a pineapple or a Dewey DIBS with a superhero cape. The students then shop for a new book in the provided book bins. The second computer shows each students personal avatar, again, simple shapes such as a square, with their first name and last name and their initials. Once they click on their name, it triggers the camera, which scans the QR code on the book, and they are done. The QR codes are labeled to help ensure the students are reading at the appropriate level.

The students are encouraged to read wherever they have time and space—to their parents as they are preparing supper, to the family dog while everyone else is watching TV, or perhaps in the car on the way from school to an activity.

One person who volunteered to help with this program at the start of DIBS' partnership with Adams Elementary saw the effect of DIBS on her daughter’s reading habits. 

“Slowly I realized this was something exciting for her. She had something new and different every day that I didn’t pick out or buy for her,” said Marie Kovar. Kovar’s own background as a bilingual psychologist proved helpful to Orrick, as the program is in some schools with high levels of bilingual students. She became the director of school support in 2017.

Each classroom is supplied with a set of 212 books, which is the maximum amount of books that can fit into the totes. The books cover a range of popular fiction and nonfiction popular with youngsters such as sharks or gems and rocks. Every four weeks, the teachers switch bins, giving their students 212 new books to discover. Each student takes home an average of about 80 books per school year.

“Marie has done a lot over the last couple of years to make sure there’s a high-interest level in the books,” said Orrick. “We’re constantly looking at how we can bring diversity to the bins. That’s a difficult one to accomplish because that percentage has not been the norm.”

Kovar routinely stops into the classrooms and makes sure the program is running smoothly and the teachers have what they need. Sometimes a QR code is torn or ripped off the book by a toddler sibling; sometimes a book is lost; most of the time, the program is running well.

Kovar’s work frees Orrick to continue product development and fundraising. The program takes about $15,000 per school to start, and Orrick’s passion for his organization has led to several partnerships and grants, from the local Sherwood Foundation to the regional Francis Family Foundation.

While the students are encouraged to read books that are tailored to their reading level Monday through Thursday, they become especially excited for Free Choice Friday. Students can choose any book from the bin, regardless of reading level, that day.

“I love how it’s transformed how so many students look at reading,” said third-grade teacher Jessica Bosiljevac of Hartman Elementary. “They get excited about DIBS, too. Especially on Fridays. In third grade, they do a better job of thinking ‘I read about this, I’d like to know more.’ So if they learned about bears, they might choose a book about grizzly bears, even if it isn’t in their reading level.”

The student-led technology that enables students to check out books about grizzly bears or beloved character Ramona Quimby is what attracted the judges for the National Book Foundation. The Innovations in Reading Prize is an annual $10,000 prize given to an individual or organization that has developed an innovative project that creates and sustains a lifelong love of reading. Orrick and the team at DIBS found out in spring 2020 that they had been awarded the prize over nearly 100 other applicants. Normally the prize is presented at a ceremony in New York City, but in 2020 the presentation was canceled. DIBS plans to put the money towards a $35,000 external evaluation to compare students reading levels without DIBS and with DIBS. The other $25,000 came from the Omaha Community Foundation.

This work will enable children in area schools to continue calling DIBS on books. 

Visit dibsforkids.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.