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Dictionary Project Brings Books to Latest Crop of Third Graders

Oct. 17, 2007 — "Zebra. Noun. An African wild animal like a horse which has brown and white stripes all over its body," said seven-year-old third grader Ronnell Krigger, reading from her own copy of The Student's Dictionary.
The books were distributed Wednesday morning at Lockhart Elementary School to 90 third graders.
"A zebra is my favorite animal," explained an excited Krigger, "I love reading animal stories."
She and her classmates will read about animals, airplanes, aardvarks or anything that strikes their fancy with their own copies of the 524-page dictionary to keep for themselves.
The Dictionary Project Fund at the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, now in its fifth year, is the dream come true of Gretta Moorhead, longtime St. Thomas English teacher, now retired.
"It's my way of giving something back to the students," she said. "It's so exciting to see their bright little eyes light up at the books."
Children's literacy has long been the focus of her professional life, Moorhead said.
"About six years ago, I read in the Wall Street Journal about a South Carolina woman who had started a project on her own to place dictionaries in the hands of pupils in South Carolina," she said. "I knew that I wanted to create a similar project in the Virgin Islands."
It took some orchestrating.
"I called Mary French to find out how she did it, and I've kept in touch since," Moorhead said. "I've hounded her."
Moorhead established the Dictionary Project Fund in 2002 as a permanent fund at the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.
One of the foundation's 90 funds finances the initiative.
"Gretta has led the charge in getting all the money together to purchase the dictionaries we distribute," said Dee Baecher-Brown, foundation president. She was on hand Wednesday, along with representatives of Rotary II of St. Thomas, which helped with the distribution this year.
Erva Denham, Rotary II president, introduced the program.
"I'm an old school teacher," she said with a smile, "and I wish my students had had this opportunity."
Denham instructed the students to open the frontis page.
"You will see the name plate there," she said. "Now write in your name. By now you are independent readers, so you don't have to ask the teacher — you can just look up anything yourselves."
Next Denham introduced Rotary District Governor Richard McCombe, who is visiting the territory from the Bahamas. "That can be the first word you look up," she said. "'Bahamas.'"
Assistant principal Jamon Liburd kept the youngsters on their toes and best manners.
"Now, altogether," he instructed, "say, 'Thank you, Rotary. Thank you, Miss Moorhead.'"
The students, sitting at attention, happily replied and gave a few cheers.
After the presentation, Moorhead said she was taken aback when the first shipment of books arrived five years ago.
"The Virgin Islands wasn't included," she said. "The dictionary lists only countries and states, and, of course, we are neither. Now we're included, but under countries."
The third grade is the ideal time to introduce children to words, Moorhead said.
"It's the time to capture and focus excitement and curiosity about language," she said.
Over the past five years, more than 7,000 dictionaries have been provided territory wide to elementary schools through the Dictionary Project Fund at CFVI, Baecher-Brown said. In partnership with the not-for-profit community, CFVI distributes the books to all third-grade students.
The original goal of the project was to give dictionaries to public-school students, but Baecher-Brown says that goal has been surpassed; now the books go to all students, private and parochial as well.
The dictionaries will be distributed at 9:15 a.m. Oct. 24 at the Claude O. Markoe Elementary School on St. Croix.
CFVI, which produces the annual Kids Count report, lists some sobering statistics on V.I. student literacy. The 2006 report says 70 percent of fifth-grade children in the territory read below or not at grade-level expectations (basic and below-basic levels). At the seventh-grade level, this number increases to 82.3 percent of students reading below grade-level expectations.
Volunteers and philanthropists from the community make the dictionary project possible. To volunteer time or money, call CFVI at 774-6031. A $50 contribution buys dictionaries for a class of 30 students.
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