Ariz. officer writes bilingual children's book, aiming to help close literacy gap

"It boils down to knowing how to read and being confident in yourself," Officer Levi Leyba said

By Cecilia Chan
East Valley Tribune 

GILBERT — A Gilbert cop is penning books in an effort to close the literacy gap for elementary school students who come from homes where Spanish is primarily spoken.

Officer Levi Leyba has written eight bilingual children's fiction books portraying as youngsters historical figures such as Amelia Earhart and Benjamin Franklin.

"The reason why I started writing the books is I've learned that early literacy when children know how to read is tied to parental involvement," said the Mesa resident.

"There's kind of a close relationship between juveniles who are in our juvenile court system and whether they know how to read — 85% of juveniles facing the court system are functionally illiterate. There's a huge relationship between literacy and crime."

Illiteracy also leads to behavioral problems, dropping out of school and a higher teen pregnancy rate, according to Leyba.

"It boils down to knowing how to read and being confident in yourself," he said. "We want to provide that ability for these children to be confident and be successful where they are contributing to society."

Adults with low literacy skills are far more likely to be under- or unemployed and therefore more likely to turn to criminal activities for financial survival, according to EveryLibrary Institute, a nonprofit that supports public funding for libraries.

Leyba is well-schooled on the impact of early childhood literacy and its relationship to educational and economic success. It was the subject of his final research paper for his master's degree in business administration when he graduated from Wilkes University in Mesa seven years ago.

He didn't join the police force until age 41.

Prior to that, he was an entrepreneur with a couple of businesses — providing consultation for businesses and nonprofits and digital communication and graphic design services.

His first book, "142 Small Businesses You Can Start on the Weekend or On Your Spare Time," led to a teaching gig at Red Mountain Community College.

He did that for a couple of quarters until he decided on a career change.

"Law enforcement has always been something that interested me while growing up in a Los Angeles suburb," Leyba explained.

"It got to the point when I asked myself, 'If you don't do it now, you won't.'"

He said that he only applied to Gilbert Police and was hired in 2019.

"It's managed very well, not only from the town's side but our chief, assistant chiefs and commanders really understand the community's needs," he said.

Through his thesis research, Leyba said he learned that children from poor households had lower literacy rates than those in middle- to upper-income neighborhoods.

"When you do the research it comes down to books inside the home," Leyba said.

According to Levba, for low-income children it's one book for every 300 children compared with 13 books per child in upper-income families across the country.

Dual-language, age-appropriate books are Leyba's answer to the problem.

His sons, ages 7 and 11, act as his sounding boards, giving reactions to his story lines.

The books have two different languages on the same page — English on top and Spanish underneath so parents can read along with their children.

According to Leyba, research has found that adult English-language learners would check out children's book from the library to learn English.

Leyba also illustrated his books but for the translation to Spanish, relied on a couple who grew up in Mexico City.

He explained that his Spanish-speaking parents as children encountered problems in schools and decided when they have kids that they would only be taught English.

He is in the process of learning the Spanish lauguage.

His books are: "Young Rosa Parks: Speak Up," "Young Andrew Carnegie: Giving Back," "Young Frida Kahlo: Positive Energy," "Young Benjamin Franklin: Curious Benjamin," "Young Abraham Lincoln: Birthday Wishes," "Young John D. Rockefeller: Smart Saver," "Young Susan B. Anthony: Selfless Acts" and "Young Amelia Earhart: No Limits.

The paperbacks average 30 pages and are $10.95 on Amazon.

"My whole goal when I did this is I wanted to do four historical males and four female figures of the past and once I did that I would promote them in Title 1 elementary schools," Leyba said.

And that's what happened last week.

Leyba through an Amazon grant distributed 375 free copies of his books to English language learners at three Gilbert Public Schools Title 1 elementary campuses — Harris, Oak Tree and Burk.

Leyba has been providing books to schools that serve a high percentage of low-income students since 2012, when he started Guardian Angel Council. The nonprofit helps to provide bilingual books to Title 1 elementary schools.

Students at the three schools also were treated to a reading by Mayor Brigette Peterson, who read in English, and Assistant Chief Michael Angstead, who read in Spanish.

Leyba added that the events show students "this is what the police looks like and what your mayor looks like."

"I always wanted to bring more books to Title 1 schools and help with the literacy effort," he said. "It creates a domino effect where kids can succeed in education and life if they know how to read by third and fourth grades."


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