Project shares power of words

For the 10th time in as many years, the attorneys and legal staff of Kean Miller law firm gathered Thursday to collect bags stuffed with small dictionaries, destined for the hands of third graders throughout the Baton Rouge area.

Addressing dozens of employees in the law firm’s seventh-floor downtown Baton Rouge conference room, Gary Bezet, a managing partner, said donating dictionaries has been a natural fit for the firm.

“As lawyers, words are our stock in trade,” Bezet said.

In November 2002, Kean Miller first distributed 4,200 dictionaries to third graders in public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Kathy Smith is the assistant superintendent for elementary schools, but in 2002 was an assistant principal at Brookstown Elementary. On Thursday, she recalled when Kean Miller employees arrived that Nov. 20 with their sacks of dictionaries.

“The look on our children’s faces and the excitement they had when they got this was incredible,” Smith said.

Also present Thursday was Sarah Carmen, 17.

Now a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Carmen was a third grader at Buchanan Elementary in 2002 when Kean Miller brought her class a set of new Webster’s Classic Research Library dictionaries.

Nine years later, she still has the book. She remembers looking up words from time to time, including “rogue,” a word she couldn’t figure out from the context in a Harry Potter novel she was reading at the time.

“After about seventh grade, my vocabulary exceeded that dictionary,” she said.

Nowadays, when she needs to look up a word, she goes to, though she will sometimes use a printed dictionary to look up a word for her French class.

In 2002, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system was a key Kean Miller client, employing the firm as counsel in its long-running desegregation case, which finally ended in 2007.

It was during that time that Kean Miller signed on to this initiative, which began in South Carolina and is known as The Dictionary Project. The hope is that having their own dictionaries will lead children to more quickly master and love reading, and thereby excel in school.

Third grade in particular is critical.

The Dictionary Project, which has given out more than 16 million dictionaries since it started in 1992, points out in its literature that third grade marks the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” when children delve more deeply in a range of subjects, including science and social studies.

“All formal education from this point through college is premised upon the student being able to read and to understand what he or she reads,” according to the Dictionary Project.

In the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, where more than eight out of 10 children live in poverty, there are few if any books awaiting many children when they go home.

After the first year, Kean Miller expanded the initiative.

On Thursday, it distributed dictionaries not just for East Baton Rouge students but for those in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes as well. In January, Kean Miller employees will distribute dictionaries to Calcasieu Parish third graders.

In all, the firm is distributing 6,300 books to third graders in 91 schools in those four parishes.

Vance Gibbs, a partner in the firm, was tasked with making deliveries to two schools Thursday, and his first stop was Park Elementary in Baton Rouge.

As he walked into Jennie Garcia’s class, Gibbs found the children were already reading in small groups.

He handed them each a new yellow book called The Best Dictionary For Students, one of the 16 dictionaries approved by The Dictionary Project.

“What do we say,” Principal Jessica Brister asked.

“Thank you,” the boys and girls shouted.

“Use these,” Gibbs said. “Build your vocabulary.”

Gibbs delivered his third and final sack of dictionaries to Keondrah Malarcher’s class. A few students grabbed them greedily and began writing their names on the front page.

“We do a lot of writing, so the dictionary will come in handy,” Malarcher said.

While the dictionaries are the property of the children, like many schools, Park Elementary prefers the books to stay for use at the school through the rest of the school year.

Some of those books from previous years were still evident in Malarcher’s classroom. That meant her current class could take their new dictionaries home, she said.

“Any time you want to come by and bring something, let me know,” Malarcher said.