By Steve Zalusky
At Armstrong Elementary School Eastover, North Carolina, more than 60 percent of the children receive free or reduced price school lunch. Although poverty is perceived to be a predictor of low academic success, the students at Armstrong, despite high levels of poverty, excel in reading and library use.
A major factor is the school librarian, Leslie Koch, whose work garnered her an I Love My Librarian Award in 2015. The numbers provide strong testimony to the success of her efforts.
During the 2014-15 school year, among the 400 students, the library circulated more than 32,500 books, an average of more than 81 books per student over the course of the year, or greater than nine books per month per student, according to her nominator for the award, Ardry Adams.
Adams said, “Ms. Koch recognizes the importance of reaching all children, and especially those from impoverished homes. Students who read, excel. Ms. Koch is raising the bar, encouraging each student to rise up, read, and excel in their individual academic endeavors.”
In addition, since Koch joined Armstrong Elementary School, the average student reading score improved 13.4 points, or 26.07 percent overall. Armstrong Elementary School was the only Title I School of Distinction, of 50 qualifying schools in Cumberland County for School Year 2014-15.
Koch has kept the library equipped with current and relevant library materials, contributing to enhanced student performance in the area of science, technology, equipment and math (STEM).
Adams said, “A key area of concern for Ms. Koch since arriving at Armstrong in 2012 has been to ensure the library was ‘kid friendly.’ In the words of Ms. Koch, the library needs to be ‘welcoming for the students.’ To say that she has been responsible for a make-over of the library would be an understatement.”
Koch arranges books on the shelves so they are accessible in an age appropriate way – for example, children in kindergarten have their books on the lower shelves, so they are easier to reach. The more advanced books are on higher shelves for 4th- and 5th-graders.
She has given the library a less institutional look by including stuffed animals in book displays, helping the children to “feel” the book they are going to read. She also reads to the children on a colorful, comfortable rug, adjusting her voice to reflect the different characters, as she interprets such books as “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”
Koch has encouraged learning with the Armstrong News Network.
The news network, a morning news broadcast featuring students in 4th and 5th grade, offers news events, weather, the school lunch menu and birthday greetings over the school television system. Students develop research skills by perusing local, national and world news items and culling them for their peers. In the process, they learn the importance of being active within the school and the world beyond it.
Adams said, “On a weekly basis Ms. Koch will help students identify birthdays of famous people and provide some information to the student body about that person. Ms. Koch also helps the students to do a brief moment on ‘this day in history.’ Each element of the broadcast is focused on enhancing student learning and student morale.”
In addition to the news network, Koch pushed students to take part in the county’s Battle of the Books, a competition they had been reluctant to enter before she arrived. Koch coached the students after school and helped them set and complete goals, building their confidence for the competition.
With children reading books far beyond their grade level, comprehension and retention scores climbed, beginning to see that they could not only participate, but they could achieve team and individual recognition for their efforts.
In the spring of 2015, she led the Armstrong 5th grade Battle of the Books team to the first level of the county competition and, subsequently, first place at that level.
Connecting students with books is a priority for Koch, who coordinates two Book Fairs each school year, encouraging students to shop for age-appropriate books. A portion of each book sale is returned to the school library. Children who lack financial resources receive incentives that allow them to take part in the Book Fair.
She has also encouraged reading through the “Leaders are Readers” program, which involves local community members in reading with the students. Participants have included the mayor, local pastors, members of the fire department, members of the military (active duty and retired) and local physicians.
Adams said, “The purpose of this program is to demonstrate to the children that everyone reads. The children are exposed to persons from a variety of backgrounds and professions. And while the children enjoy all of the readers, these local leaders always leave with a smile and sense of achievement for their contribution to reading with the students.”
Koch has a strong relationship as well with the teachers and faculty at Armstrong. She is aware of their needs and seeks interlibrary loans from other schools within her county to supplement available resources. She also leverages available resources to satisfy the students’ curiosity in a particular area, such as animals or space travel.
Assistant Principal Bianca Carter noted her valuable contributions to the school improvement team, saying, “She serves as an advocate for students and literacy needs. She goes out of her way to help the school in areas that are not directly related to her position. Mrs. Koch also serves as our web master, which entails ensuring that school information is accurate and up-to-date. She is certainly an asset!”
In a video she recorded on the occasion of receiving her award, Koch said, when asked what is the most rewarding aspect of her job, “Being able to connect a child with something that they are interested in and getting them reading.”
She said sometimes they will tell her they don’t like to read. She will tell them they do. “You just haven’t found the right book yet. You’ve got to get that spark, and then usually, if you baby it, it will continue to burn.”
On receiving the award, she said, “I am deeply honored and very touched that my friends and co-workers thought enough of me to put their heads together. I have a 72-year-old volunteer who started this ball rolling. And she was only going to volunteer one day a week. Now I have her five. She is a great-aunt of a couple of children that I have teach and, just, my number one cheerleader.”
Nominations for the 2016 I Love My Librarian Awards are open through September 19. Learn more.