With his mysterious accent, black scarf and bald head, Ryan Pivonka, assistant principal at Ralston High School, was received with laughs and enthusiasm when he walked into the second-grade classroom at Mockingbird Elementary School.

The children had been told there would be a surprise on Feb. 21, and they should wear their “Minion” shirts, made famous by the “Despicable Me” films. Little did they know that they would be greeted by Gru, the film’s infamous supervillain.

Although Pivonka dressed and sounded just like the character, perhaps even more exciting than his appearance was the fact that he brought with him new books for every student in the classroom.

Events like this have become common at Mockingbird Elementary School.

Since September, each student from kindergarten to third grade receives $7 worth of new books every month as part of the Book Trust Initiative, a program funded by United Way of the Midlands to bring books to students in 10 schools in the metro area at a total cost of $250,000 per year.

This year, 2,500 books have been delivered to students at Mockingbird, and Melissa Mayo, director of Classroom Ready Initiatives at United Way of the Midlands, estimates by the end of the school year that number could reach 5,000.

“What this really confirms is that kids are still excited about reading,” Mayo said. “To see this excitement, you’d think it was Christmas every month with all these celebrations.”

The books are often held in the school for weeks while the students’ excitement builds for the book giveaway. Each giveaway is an event in its own right, and usually includes a special guest, ranging from Miss Nebraska to a teacher’s family members.

“I think the creativity of this opportunity really lies in the hands of schools,” Mayo said. “The point of it is to make these days really special and show why reading is important.”

Mockingbird, where 78 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, was the only school in RPS chosen for this program. Some of the students here didn’t have books at home, but by the end of the year they’ll have a library of at least 30 books.

“It’s leveling the playing field so that every kind of student from kindergarten to third grade is ordering books every month,” Mayo said.

The goal of the program is to encourage literacy and make sure students are reading at grade level. Students are able to pick out their own books from a Scholastic catalog with the help of teachers, who help identify the genres their students might like and make sure students are on the right reading level. Teachers are then reimbursed by United Way of the Midlands.

“When kids have that ability to choose what they read, they’re more excited about reading,” Mayo said.

Stacey Stoffel, a fifth-grade teacher and Mockingbird Book Trust manager, sees each month just how eager students are to have new books to call their own. Many of those who struggled with reading before this school year now can’t wait to get their hands on another book, writing their name inside the book as soon as they can.

“It’s so wonderful to see them so excited about reading,” Stoffel said. “We want to get that anticipation up.”

One of the goals of the program is that students will take the books home with them to read with their parents and family members. For those students whose families don’t speak English, books in Spanish are also available.

“One kid says thank you for getting me new books in Spanish so I can read with my parents at night,” Stoffel said.

The Book Trust Initiative is a three-year pilot program beginning with kindergarteners. After three years, students could have more than 90 books of their own.

“We’ve been so fortunate to have this program,” Stoffel said.

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