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Eight Thousand Books

Light Up for Literacy Award goes to Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell

Eight Thousand Books

Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell.

 “We couldn’t budget for a librarian.”

That’s what the leadership of Abramson Sci Academy in New Orleans East said to Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell, then an assistant professor for pre-service teachers at Louisiana State University (LSU), only a few years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. The school had no library and no books, and at that time there wasn’t even a public library nearby.

For Sulentic Dowell, this just wouldn’t do. The child of immigrant parents, she recalls how one grandmother would read to her in German and the other would read to her in Croatian. Her family would regularly take the bus to the local library or let the bookmobile come to them. She went on to become a high school English teacher in her native Iowa, noticing then that what had been natural for her was less so for others. There was a disconnect, she says, between how children approached literacy, how the curriculum approached literacy, and most importantly, how families and parents approached literacy.

“I have rarely met parents who didn’t love their children,” said Sulentic Dowell. “But I’ve met tons who haven’t been able to give their children the right literacy tools.”

The journey toward providing those tools eventually led her to East Baton Rouge Parish, where she served as an assistant superintendent in the school system. She oversaw literacy learning at sixty-four elementary sites, directed the professional development in literacy for nearly 1,500 teachers, and built over 450 classroom libraries.

As it had on Abramson, Hurricane Katrina left its mark on Sulentic Dowell. She evacuated to her second home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she had planned to retire, only to have a tornado from the storm destroy it and everything she owned. She saw the invitation to restart her life, marrying her husband, moving to Louisiana for good, and becoming a professor in the School of Education at LSU. That eventually led her to visit the high school in New Orleans East.

After that meeting at Abramson, Sulentic Dowell went back to her students at LSU and launched a service-learning project. They ran a book drive, collecting nearly eight thousand books (and blowing out the suspension on her husband’s truck); the pre-service teachers then researched how the books should be distributed across classrooms.

When it came time to deliver the books, Sulentic Dowell’s superior told her New Orleans was too dangerous for her students, never mind the fact that most of them were from the city. Sulentic Dowell proceeded to announce an “unofficial” time and place for students who wanted to participate to meet for the book drop. “Every single one of my students came,” she remembered with a laugh.

“It was very healing for me,” she said. “And healing for my LSU students to build so many classroom libraries at Abramson.”

This experience is only one of many reasons why the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, in partnership with the State Library of Louisiana’s Center for the Book, have chosen to honor Sulentic Dowell with the 2019 Light Up for Literacy Award.

“Dr. Sulentic Dowell is an inspiration to all of us who seek to better the lives of young children and families through literacy and education. Her long and distinguished career serves as a shining example of what an individual can accomplish for others,” said Miranda Restovic, President and Executive Director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

Sulentic Dowell will be honored at the Bright Lights Awards Dinner this spring.

Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell, PhD, is Cecil “Pete” Taylor Endowed Professor of Literacy and Urban Education in the School of Education at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, where she is Director of the LSU Writing Project and Coordinator of the Grades 1-5 Teacher Education Program. Sulentic Dowell has been nationally recognized for her scholarship and teaching.

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Celebrate Dr. Sulentic Dowell and all of the 2019 Humanities Award winners on April 4 at the Bright Lights Awards Dinner in Lafayette. For more information and tickets, visit www.leh.org/brightlights.