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How One School District Hopes to Keep Students Reading All Summer Long

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Lately, I've been reading about more and more school libraries staying open during the summer to encourage students to read.

Librarian Jennifer LaGarde knows about this trend firsthand. She's a digital teaching and learning specialist and the lead school library media coordinator for New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, N.C.

Coding.jpgLast year her school district opened four school libraries during the summer break, and this year that number has grown to 11.  Jennifer recently talked to me via phone about her district's efforts. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

 Why did you start this program?

Like a lot of districts, we have been concerned about the summer slide, particularly for our students who don't have transportation to the public library or access to summer camp programs, and so we asked ourselves what could we do to try to guarantee that those kids have access to reading materials over the summer. Last year, we piloted a summer library program at four of our schools. It was crucial to us that a few things were true about that program:

  • that it would be staffed by a school library media coordinator because just giving kids access to books is not enough. We wanted someone there who could help them select the right book, encourage them to read, get them excited about reading.
  • that we'd also be offering some programs at the site, some activities that would be fun;
  • that we really wanted to make them at our schools that were walkable, that were in neighborhoods, so that kids could get there without necessarily having to have transportation, or that an older brother or sister could walk them.

How did that first year go?

We had a lot of success. We had lots of students come. We spent some time looking at data related to those sites and how did those kids do at the beginning of the following year versus their counterparts who didn't attend the program. We found that kids who had access to reading material just did better in lots of different ways from being well prepared for the school year to not experiencing the kind of summer loss that their counterparts did.

Why do you think the program has been so successful?

We have kickoff events at the end of the year. Most school librarians are running around worried about getting all of the books back at the end of the school year, whereas in our kickoff programs, instead of having to return all of their books at the end of the year, kids actually come to the library and fill up a bag full of books to take home. Every student gets books to take home. We also invite those kids to come back. We send home information with the dates that the libraries will be open and say, 'OK, here are your books to read for the summer, but here are all the dates that you can come back and get more, and look what you can do. You can learn how to code, or you can play Minecraft.' It's very much a culture shift from let's worry about getting books back to this idea of getting readers back is really the most important thing. It results in excitement from the kids. We also had a huge communication push where our principals supported the effort by sending home messages via the telephone, via texts. We put huge banners out in front of the schools. We added it to community calendars around our local area. We had advertisements in local publications, and we had the local news covering several events. We just really tried to sell it, so that our community would be aware that this was something that was available to them.

What kind of activities do you offer?

We've got so many cool programs going on at the different sites. Each school library media coordinator spent time with their colleagues planning and developing partnerships with all sorts of different folks from organizations that do reading with service animals to our public libraries, just lots of different community agencies that would be willing to come in and do programs with our kids. We allow any student from any New Hanover County school to go to any of the sites to check out books and participate in the programs. They don't have to go to their home school. They can go to every single school if they want to, and they can come and bring their family members, so that we're helping to build literacy across our community. Many of our sites provide snacks through Nourish NC, so it really is an opportunity to serve the needs of our whole community.

How long are the libraries open?

We wanted to have consistent hours, so all of the sites are open from 9 to 1 on the days that they're open. Each site is open four times per summer, but they're scattered. Literally, for six full weeks, parents could take their child to a different program every single day if they wanted to. We have seen that kind of cross-pollination. While we do see that students who live in a certain area that don't have transportation go to their local site, we do have parents that are traveling from site to site with their kids because the kid is interested in whatever program is going on that day at that school. We have sites open at all three levels, elementary, middle, and high school.

How does your district pay for this?

This is entirely district funded. We don't rely on grants. This is a sustained investment in the literacy needs of our students by our county.

And the program is free for students?

The activities are free for students. There's no registration. There's absolutely no cost to the students whatsoever. Last year, one of the schools had the North Carolina Raptor Society come in and bring birds. One of the schools wanted to have somebody from the North Carolina Aquarium come in and do an activity. There was a small cost for that, and the school or the district paid that. Most of the activities, in terms of what it costs to put them on, are free. We run them in-house. Every once in a while a site will say, 'Hey we want to do this with this organization. It costs $150,' and we figure out a way to pay for that.

Do you think this is a model other districts could easily replicate?

Yes. We prioritize what we value, and I think all districts would say that they value student literacy and student success. Our technology department partnered with our instructional [department] to budget the funds for these programs, and they're not super costly. The main cost is the staffing. It's just been a matter of prioritizing it. If a district wants to do it, it's super easy to put together. I'm sure every district has staff who's willing and able and wants to serve the literacy needs of kids during the summer. When we put it to ourselves as what can we do to make sure our kids have reading material this summer beyond just saying, 'Oh, here go to the public library and get a library card or here's some activities that are going on elsewhere.' We just said, 'Well this is what we want to do. Let's work to make it happen.'

Photo: Elementary students work on a coding activity at Snipes Academy of Arts and Design in Wilmington, N.C. (New Hanover County Schools)

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