November 24, 2014

Making a Splash With Summer Reading

By Walter Minkel

Seven ways public librarians can team up with schools

If you’re a children’s librarian who wants to promote an upcoming summer reading program at your public library, start by targeting the local schools. After all, that’s where the children are.

Although cooperation between public libraries and schools can lead to wonderful results, both sides rarely initiate lasting partnerships. Public librarians often don’t know how to reach out effectively. And while some teachers and principals welcome visits from public librarians, many educators are less than enthusiastic.

“If you send a letter or call the principal asking to schedule classroom visits, you often won’t be called back,” says Julie Sorensen, a children’s librarian at the West Covina Library, a branch of the County of Los Angeles Public Library (COLAPL). “[So public librarians] need to make the principals aware of how we’re supporting their programs.” But don’t stop there: children’s librarians also need to make sure everyone understands that summer reading programs help kids become better readers.

Like most public children’s librarians, COLAPL’s Youth Services Coordinator Penny Markey knows that cultivating relationships with teachers can be difficult, but she adds that maintaining those relationships can be even tougher. That’s why in 2001 she launched a two-year study examining the benefits of five summer reading programs run by Southern California’s public libraries. Teachers interviewed for the study said that about 33 percent of K – 3 summer reading participants were more likely to read above grade level, compared to only 18 percent of their nonparticipating peers. Researchers also discovered that second graders who read above grade level and continue to read during the summer were more likely than non-summer readers to read above grade level when they entered third grade. (See February 2002, “Study: Summer Reading Helps Students ,” p. 24.)

Markey also found that reaching out to parents is crucial. In 1995, she and Virginia Walter of UCLA’s library and information school formed a focus group to examine the reasons children sign up for summer reading programs. The study found that 47 percent of parents who signed up their kids for summer reading were regular library users who had heard about the program from the library, but only 21 percent of parents had heard about the program from their kids’ schools.

To connect with more school parents, Markey borrowed an idea from the advertising world. She designed brightly colored stickers that proclaimed in both English and Spanish: “Vacation reading equals better grades. Take your child to the county library for summer reading.” Although many principals and teachers thought that was a great idea, the library system was soon hit with severe budget cuts, and the project was scrapped.

But the idea was far from dead. Cynthia Olson, youth services supervisor at nearby Torrance Public Library (TPL), decided to try the stickers idea herself. In the spring of 2001, she and some of her colleagues went to the local elementary schools seeking permission to place the stickers on report card envelopes. Their efforts paid off big-time, as the number of children who registered for summer reading skyrocketed from 1,800 to 2,300. “Many parents who said they hadn’t been in before brought their children into the library, sticker in hand,” Olson explains.

To build better relationships with principals and teachers, TPL librarians kept Excel spreadsheets listing the name, school, and grade of each child who participated in the summer reading program. TPL then sent a letter to each principal listing all of the students who took part in the program. In some schools, the summer readers’ names were read over the PA system or written up in the school newsletter.

How can your summer reading program reach more children? Here are some of the best ways public libraries can team up with local schools.

Compile booklists with your school counterparts. Many public librarians nationwide help school media specialists and teachers compile their summer reading lists. “I want to be involved [in creating booklists] so that what is on the list is available in our library,” says Julie Rines, coordinator of children’s services for the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, MA. Since each of Quincy’s school lists contains 300 to 500 titles, checking to see if her library has all the titles is no easy task, but Rines feels it’s worth the effort.

When it comes to summer reading programs, public librarians and schools in Santa Monica, CA, work hand in hand. During the school year, the Santa Monica/ Malibu school district’s sole elementary librarian, Suzanne Peterson, attends the public library’s collection development meetings and promotes new titles with teachers. These titles are then included on students’ summer reading lists. A committee of teachers, middle school librarians, and Santa Monica Public Library’s young adult librarians create booklists for students entering grades 6 – 8. The library also creates its own annotated versions of the lists to help kids and parents identify the books they’re most interested in. During the summer, each student is required to read two books from the lists.

Join forces with other summer reading programs in your area. In many states, the emphasis on reading, fueled by President Bush’s recent “No Child Left Behind” education policy, has led to the creation of private and state-sponsored reading programs that are promoted in schools. For the past three years, for example, Ohio has had two competing summer reading programs – a statewide program in public libraries run by the State Library of Ohio, and “The Governor’s Summer Reading Challenge” launched by Ohio Governor Bob Taft as part of his OhioReads program.

Traci Moritz, a youth services coordinator for the Putnam County (OH) District Library says that having two programs has been a headache for the public librarians. “Some [of the 13 schools I serve] let me come with an open-door policy throughout the year, and others pretend I don’t exist,” she says.

This year, the two programs will merge, thanks to the efforts of Ohio State Library Children’s Services Consultant Cheri Wilks. “We hope the [public] librarians will have an easier time getting into schools to promote the program now that they’re combined,” Moritz says. This spring, all of Ohio’s principals will receive a letter encouraging them to let public librarians into their schools to promote the summer reading club. Wilks says that the State Library and the public library will keep statistics to see how well the new program is doing.

Make time to visit nearby schools. Vicky Smith, the children’s librarian at the McArthur Library in Biddeford, ME, says that promoting her summer reading program takes her out of the library for two weeks. “But to my mind it’s the most valuable two weeks of the year,” she says. “My personal visits to the classrooms and my enthusiasm do more to energize the kids than a million flyers. It makes me a walking target in the supermarket. [Kids say,] ‘You came to my school! Remember me?’ – and it raises the library’s level of recognition tremendously.” Smith says if your fellow staff members complain about your absence, let them know just how essential personal contact is with kids in schools.

Children’s librarians have traditionally traveled from classroom to classroom while visiting schools in the spring, booktalking, reading picture books aloud, and promoting the upcoming summer reading program. Since individual classroom visits can add up to three or four hours all told, many librarians try to meet with as many as many as 150 kids at one time in the school auditorium. “We do a ‘song and dance’ routine, with songs, stories, riddles, crazy hats, weird clothes, whatever we think will make it memorable and exciting,” says Susanna Holstein, the children’s librarian at the Elk Valley branch of the Kanawha County (WV) Public Library, who performs in tandem with a library assistant. “We bring bookmarks and copies of our summer schedule of events. It’s important to get them into the kids’ hands, and perhaps they actually get them home.”

Do whatever you can to grab parents’ attention. Julie Sorensen recommends reserving a five- to seven-minute slot in an awards assembly, which schools hold near the end of the academic year, to talk about your summer reading program. Why? Because many parents come to watch their children receive awards. “Because it’s an assembly, I bring in a big visual prop, like a big puppet, or I do an audience participation story,” says Sorensen. Other programs or meetings, such as PTA or PTO meetings that parents attend in the late spring are also good venues to promote summer reading. “Personal contact is a killer – it takes up so much time,” says Olson. “But it’s the best way to get the message out.”

Take advantage of summer school programs. In many areas, particularly those with low-income or at-risk students, summer school programs are important. In Walla Walla, WA, one largely Hispanic summer school program regularly visits the public library by bus, while another summer school program walks to the library. “We addressed the teachers [at the schools] and many bought into the summer program, kept the logs of daily reading time, and handed out the prizes which we delivered to them,” says Mary Ann Gilpatrick, a children’s librarian at the Walla Walla Public Library. Getting the summer school students into the summer reading program has paid off. “There has been a huge upsurge in Hispanic family use of the library,” she adds.

In other towns, school libraries are opened to the community one or two days a week, particularly in areas where the public library is far away. Julie Rines says this summer she plans to deliver flyers for each of the library’s upcoming programs to a local school library that stays open during the summer a few days a week.

Schedule a follow-up in September. Many librarians follow Torrance Public Library’s lead and send letters to the principals of local schools letting them know which of their students participated in summer reading. “Most of the parents tell me that the kids are recognized either verbally over the loudspeaker or through a newsletter sent home,” says Kay Bowes of the Concord Pike Library in Wilmington, DE. “If I didn’t send those letters [to the schools], I think some of the parents would be after my head!”

Give children free books. There can never be too many opportunities to show children the value of reading. Bonnie Webster, an outreach librarian at the Taylor County (KY) Public Library, takes her summer reading program to the local summer schools, and at the end of the semester all participating students receive a free paperback book.

“The principal told me that I had made the children very happy by giving out free books,” says Webster, who is well aware that kids in summer school are often the ones who have had the most trouble reading. “I think there is a great need to reach these children who have been turned off to reading in school. If somebody doesn’t reach them, they may never like to read.”

Walter Minkel is SLJ’s technology editor

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