In a third-grade classroom at McEbright school in Akron, the sound of a pencil sharpener is slowly being replaced by the muted thud of an index finger tapping a tablet screen.

The third-graders here, as in every elementary building in Akron Public Schools, are patrons of the nationís most expansive e-library, an online clearinghouse with a limitless catalog of electronic books. With more than 3,400 books available, teachers can expand the library by simply requesting new titles.

No cost. No fuss. And itís all thanks to the growing crowd of supporters who have locked step with LeBron James in his continued commitment to his hometown.

The e-library program provides an endless, lifetime supply of e-books. Itís made possible by the LeBron James Family Foundation, which supports Akron students through its Wheels for Education program; Florida-based Sebco Books, a family-owned company that distributes e-books; and ABDO Publishing, a childrenís book publisher.

Through the Wheels for Education program, James adopts a new third-grade class each year. So far, classes graduating between 2021 and 2024 have been taken under the hometown heroís wing.

Within these classes, more than 600 students have been identified as needing additional intervention to improve their reading skills.

To foster that literacy, the LeBron James Family Foundation has donated 1,000 Hewlett-Packard laptops and 300 desktops, and 700 Samsung tablets.

To fill the devices with e-books for all skill levels and ages, Sebco ó with the generosity of the Abdo family ó donated $30,000 in the summer to pilot the e-library, which since has been expanded by an additional donation of $100,000 in e-books.

The tablets and other devices are made available to all students as the Wheels for Education students grow older and advance toward graduation. The technology also empowers learning in Akronís after-school programming, which extends the school day and provides additional instructional time for more than a third of the cityís 10,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Online resources

In its first year at Akron schools, the e-library allows multiple copies of the same book to be viewed simultaneously, something online libraries at local branches cannot offer because of licensing issues.

Though teachers say students still enjoy the experience of unfolding a book in front of them, they no longer are forced to race to bookcases and baskets to fight for limited supplies.

They also canít say, ďI forgot my book,Ē said Jill Richards, a third-grade teacher at McEbright.

Thatís the beauty of the program, school administrators agreed: The books never leave the childís side. When they put down their tablets, they can continue reading on a computer or smartphone. Students are given remote access to the e-library, which is altered as teachers remove books that donít fit the curriculum or are not garnering interest from students.

The e-library is populated by books that Akron teachers and administrators have recommended. If students undertake a project on whales, for example, then the virtual bookshelves are updated to reflect that work.

And if the children arenít reading the books, software built into the program alerts teachers, who can weed out the selection or use data to identify students who need additional support or encouragement.

Tech-driven readers

In Richardsí classroom, fellow third-grade teacher Vicky Goff shares the space with her students, who sit around desks grouped into islands.

At one island, they read aloud in unison. At another, they quietly take turns and then discuss the text. With the click of a button, students highlight and take snapshots of a fact or passage that is then used as evidence to support the discussion.

The students toggle seamlessly between word processors, cameras and e-books, integrating technology into their lesson. In the hallways, they take photos of various angles and shapes, then save the pictures and present them to their peers and teachers as part of a photo-safari geometry lesson.

ďNot only can they read, but they can open up a program and start writing about it,Ē Richards said.

Richards talks of the benefits, which allow for differentiated learning among and beyond various aptitudes and cognitive barriers. A visually impaired student can increase text size. A hearing impaired student might be drawn to photos that jump off the tablet.

One student, Richards said, would be limited in math because he struggles to read; however, voice-over and auto-correct functions allow the student, who is actually gifted in math, to excel in arithmetic while he lags in other areas.

Itís all part of the effort to get students to read by the end of third grade or risk being retained. Teachers have undergone professional development and training to prepare them for the stateís tall order. Some have taken advanced college courses or passed stopgap tests.

Richards, who took a multiweek literacy training program to become temporarily certified for the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, is confident in her ability.

ďNow I have the resources,Ē she said.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.