A book vending machine gives students at a Des Moines middle school incentive to read

A vending machine full of books is helping to make Harding Middle School's efforts to increase literacy and high school graduation rates a reality. / Una máquina expendedora llena de libros está ayudando a hacer realidad los esfuerzos de Harding Middle School para aumentar la alfabetización y las tasas de graduación de la escuela preparatoria.

By Kyle Werne, Des Moines Register

Students at Harding Middle School in Des Moines are reading. A lot.

In fact, since school started this year, students have read more than 1,000 books thanks to a reading program that includes a book vending machine.


Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the school implemented the Harding Reads program as a way to get students back into books, with a long-term goal of creating a positive school culture and improving student reading scores.

It just so happens a vending machine full of books made its way to Harding in the process.

Harding has teamed up with the nonprofit By Degrees Foundation to make this effort possible.

“The idea started as myself and a colleague were brainstorming ways to get back to the basics of learning following COVID,” Cari Long, Harding’s By Degrees program director, said in an email to the Register. “The basics of learning can be boiled down to simply spending time with a good book! So, in an effort to improve literacy, language skills, and fluency, we decided to incentivize reading.”

Here’s how it works

Imagine this: a vending machine full of books for students to read, across nearly any genre that students can think of — non-fiction, stories from around the world, verse and poetry, graphic novels and “dangerous” books, where the characters may come across as something perilous or go on an adventure.


Each time a student finishes reading a book, they fill out a Harding Reads “ticket,” with their name, grade level and the genre of book they read. Here’s the hard part — they need to get a Harding staffer’s signature at the bottom of the ticket.

To get the signature, students must have a conversation with the staffer about the book. They have to identify the main characters, their favorite parts, things that made them think and whether they would recommend the book to a friend. Once their ticket is filled and their conversation completed, they turn the ticket in to Long.

With each book they complete, they could get a reward.

“At the end of each month the advisory group that read the most books earns a class celebration,” a release from By Degrees said. “This encourages some friendly competition as well as creating community within advisory groups.”

And for every three books a student turns into Long, they receive a token that can be used in a real vending machine full of goodies and treats.

Local businesses help the program grow

Earlier this school year, local businesses caught wind of the book vending machine and wanted to help make the program bigger and better, according to the release.


By Degrees has worked with the Wittern Group, a locally owned vending company, to get donations for an actual vending machine for the students to use.

Cha Cha’s Hiland Bakery has offered to provide gift cards to hand out to students as rewards, which By Degrees will pay monthly.

Sara Hopkins Realty provided startup funding for the daily and monthly rewards.

The impact a book vending machine can have

Studies over the years have shown that higher levels of literacy and engagement in middle school can lead to an increase in high school graduations and students going off to college.

When the Harding Reads program started in the latter half of the 2022-23 school year, officals didn’t see a whole lot of participation. This school year that changed.

“Last school year, running the program for four months, from February through May, we had a total of 334 book tickets turned in,” the release said. “Now, only three months into the school year, we have had 1,146 book tickets turned in.”

According to Long, it’s made an impact.

“It has been a big improvement in the culture at Harding,” she said. “We have high expectations for our kids, and it has been fun to see students’ reactions to realizing that they can meet those expectations!”

What is the By Degrees Foundation?


Founded in 1990 as the I Have a Dream Foundation, By Degrees is an education-based nonprofit. Besides Harding, they work with Findley Elementary School and North High School in Des Moines.

The nonprofit aims to increase high school graduation rates and postsecondary readiness.

According to the foundation’s website, they “build intentional partnerships with our schools, community organizations, businesses and postsecondary institutions to uplift students, families and whole neighborhoods.”

“By Degrees launched Harding Reads to engage our students and build a culture of reading throughout the school,” By Degrees CEO Emily Westergaard said. “When students see that the program is supported by community organizations and businesses in their neighborhood, it sends a powerful message that our community is invested in our students’ success.”

You can learn more about the By Degrees Foundation at www.bydegreesfoundation.org/copy-of-who-we-are-1.

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