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The Dictionary Project

Local organization aids in education

Alexander: University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Chancellor Michael Alexander helps a student at Eisenhower Elementary School in Green Bay. Submitted photo

By Rick Cohler

Contributing Writer

GREEN BAY – Third grade students at Green Bay’s Howe Elementary Community School and seven other Green Bay elementary schools each have their own comprehensive dictionary, thanks to the Optimist Club of Green Bay.

Green Bay Optimist member Jack LeDuc visited Howe School in 2017, and after seeing the multi-ethnic makeup of the student body, he told second grade teacher Skye Leonard that he would like to help.

As a former science teacher and aviation pilot, seeing the unique learning needs and multi-cultural make-up created a new approach for LeDuc.

“I bought flashcards from the School House in Ashwaubenon. Art, word and game sheets from NASA and the latest space race materials engaged many others. What grabbed every second –  fifth grader was reading  how planes fly, how Orville and Willbur Wright invented the first aircraft from their bicycle shop then students building their own NASA model plane and test flying them in the gym to see whose design was best. There is also a botany plant program with each student selecting their own plants and flowers.

“I was trying to find a book that I could afford which is part dictionary and part encyclopedia to give to every kid,” he said. Looking online, LeDuc found an organization called “The Dictionary Project,” based in Charleston S.C., whose goal is to “assist all students in becoming good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary,” according to their website. 

“Educators see third grade as the dividing line between learning to read and reading to learn, so we encourage our sponsors to give dictionaries each year to children in the third grade.”

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Womens Volleyball Coach Abbie Sutherland participates in the Green Bay Optimist Club’s program to give students their own dictionaries. Submitted photo

Each student receives a copy of A Student’s Dictionary, which is much more than spelling and definitions.

It also includes: biographies of the U.S. Presidents, The Declaration of Independence, The United States Constitution, facts about countries, maps of the seven continents, information about the 50 states, facts about the planets, weights and measures, the longest word, sign language, specifications of the Earth and Braille.

The Dictionary Project, founded in 1995 by Mary French, has given well over 35 million special dictionary mini-encyclopedias to students across the country.

UWGB Women’s Volleyball coach Abbie Sutherland and her assistant, Katie Adams, joined the effort to take the Dictionary Project to a new level.

In late 2022, LeDuc, with the support of Green Bay Optimist President Brenda Wolff and the Optimist Club Foundation, approved funding for every third grader at Howe, Fort Howard, Tank, Nicolet, Sullivan, Baird, Eisenhower and Danz schools.

“In December, January and February we distributed 576 dictionaries to third grade students in these schools,” LeDuc said. “Brenda asked ‘What about Spanish as first language?’ So then I went back to the principal and district offices. It turns out many of these kids speak Spanish only so I called Operation Dictionary and asked if they have a dictionary for Spanish, and we went back to Sullivan School and found that 44 of the 104 kids we had given dictionaries to spoke only Spanish. Now they get their very own Spanish edition. At each of these schools, Abbie and Katie are there at our events because they both speak Spanish.”

Howe School Principal Amy Kallioinen said the Optimists and LeDuc’s involvement have been instrumental in improving the school.

“He has taken a deep concern for our students and continues to help them develop a deep love of reading,” she said. “The kids are very grateful.”

For LeDuc, the engagement he has with the students is his greatest reward.

“My goal is to get every third grader in every school in Brown County their own dictionary,” LeDuc said. “So you get the Optimist Club, Rotary and Lions and Elks involved. In doing my research, others have reached out to the veterans clubs, they’ve reached out to churches, they’ve reached out to all these different groups to get each one to adopt one school.

“Our goal is from now to September is to work with clubs, churches and others  to adopt schools in their areas of Brown County so that every third grader gets their ‘take home book’ to use for a lifetime of learning.”

For more information about the Optimist Dictionary program, visit gboptimist.com.

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