Director, Children and YA Services
Chicago Public Library
MLIS, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1988
Photo by Tiffany Szymanski
STEMing Summer Slide
The dreaded summer slide, in which students lose academic ground during their months off from school, is a well-documented phenomenon that most library systems try to combat through summer reading programs. What isn’t as well documented is whether such programs work.
That’s why Elizabeth McChesney, a 25-year veteran of the 80-branch Chicago Public Library (CPL) system, undertook a major impact/measurement study of CPL’s popular summer reading program shortly after she became the director of CPL’s children and YA services in 2012. With 71,000 participants in 2013, it’s one of the largest such programs in the country.
She soon learned that CPL’s program wasn’t necessarily effective at combating the summer slide—and it’s not alone, according to research done by the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA).
Partnering with NSLA, McChesney transformed CPL’s summer reading program into the Summer Learning Challenge. Based on research about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and learning skills defined by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, it draws kids into learning through child-centered, active learning experiences—including science experiments, games, and creative activities—that reflect literacy skills and are aligned with Common Core State Standards.
McChesney and her team added ways for children to report their online engagement through digital badges that earn them credit for summer learning—and that simultaneously allows the program to measure students’ ability along four specific tracks: “read, learn, discover, and create.”
As a result of the redesign, program participation rose by 11,000 children over 2012; among six- to nine-year-olds, participation rose by 85 percent. Moreover, 87 percent of participants completed learning activities for the four learning tracks noted above—more than the 76 percent who met a lower reading goal in 2012 (25 completed picture books or ten chapter books), which had been the only metric.
“This evidence-based approach is a huge step forward for the field and is now being hailed beyond libraries by organizations such as the NSLA,” says Brian Bannon, commissioner of CPL. “Prior to their engagement with Liz, public libraries were not on the NSLA’s radar as strategic partners for addressing summer slide. They are now refocusing on libraries as a result of the partnership.”
Along with Bannon, the entire CPL executive team and Foundation joined in the nomination, inspired by her vision and accomplishments. McChesney has her own vision: “I am a children’s librarian to the very depths of my soul,” she says.
“I passionately believe in this work and the mission of the public library as the place of choice and personal transformation for all of our children. Our work is imperative and never more so than in an era of continued shrinking support for kids.”