A Season for Learning

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By Steve Zalusky

Learning doesn’t end with the school year. At our nation’s libraries, summer is the season for learning, as libraries fill a critical need for continuity in the education process.  Public libraries serve a critical function in summer learning, in many cases acting as the only safety net against the summer slide.

Shawn Brommer, youth services and outreach consultant with the South Central Library System in Madison, Wisconsin, said she is seeing a trend of youth services librarians in public libraries are looking at the benefit that summer library programs provide to the entire community.   “We are addressing the summer slide through so many activities, definitely through our literacy activities and through supporting reading. But we are also looking at summer learning.”

You might say that libraries are getting STEAMed up in their summer programming. In addition to reading and literacy activities, many libraries are adding math and science elements, she said.

At the Portage County Public Library in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, the Youth Summer Library Program includes not only a summer reading club, but also a Hillbilly Science event that promises “science and laughs.”

Brommer said many of the 454 libraries she serves are in rural communities where the public library is often the only opportunity for summer learning.  Within those communities, one sees opportunities for innovation.  “That’s where we see so many exciting programs happening,” she said, programs that provide families with an opportunity to participate together, “whether it’s a program where children and entire families are learning something or whether they are experiencing a musical act or theater.”

Also, these libraries are giving children and families the chance to give back to their communities through the summer learning program by helping local animal shelters, food pantries or homeless shelters.

“Public libraries have always been addressing the summer slide. We have always been providing programs and summer learning opportunities that help children return to school ready to read. We know what we’re doing. We are intentionally providing programs that are helping children continue to read and that are engaging them on an intellectual level,” Brommer said.

Nicole Ozanich, youth services librarian and assistant director at the Portage County Public Library in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, said students are encouraged to explore the library and take full advantage of its resources.

“We challenge our patrons,” she said. “They always have the option to read, but if they want to challenge themselves, we have them listen to an audiobook or read to their pets or do a simple science experiment (or) learn the facts about an exotic animal. Those are just some of the examples of what kids can do.”

She said the library coordinates with local organizations to offer unique learning experiences for free that families may not be able to do otherwise. This summer, the library is pairing up with the local humane society for an event called “Don’t Lick the Dog,” which is offered to first- and second-graders, who are taught how to handle pets properly.

The library has also joined forces with a local kayaking firm to offer a program for teenagers, who go kayaking and learn how to operate the craft and are schooled on safety rules.  “The activities in general turn on their brains,” she said. “We just want to keep them thinking and exploring, and we hope that it better prepares them for the next school year.

Christine Caputo, the head of youth services and programs at the Free Library of Philadelphia, said libraries offer during the summer months the opportunity for independent study and social interaction with peers and family.

She said, “Libraries have been working on summer programming for decades, and it has been a big area of focus for us to support student learning, to engage children, teens and families and adults in finding great books and finding information. Libraries are a great places for people to focus on what they want to learn about.”

During that time, libraries bridge the educational chasm between the spring and fall months of learning.  Research shows, she said, that if children “are not engaged in activities, if they are doing no reading, if they are not participating in any programs or camps or activities, we know that teachers in the fall of the school year have to spend an enormous amount of time reviewing and reminding students about things they have read the previous school year. 

Students who are engaged with educational activities over the summer need less review, because they are still learning and engaged during the summertime.  “Libraries are a great place for that to happen, because we can do a little bit of everything, we welcome everyone and we have things for all ages.”

One program that engages students on all levels is provided by the San Francisco Public Library.  The program, bearing a name that plays on the phrase “summer slide,” is called “Summer Stride.”  The library partners with the National Park Service for the program, with park rangers delivering talks in all 28 San Francisco Public Library branches and patrons joining park rangers on free shuttles from nine neighborhood branch libraries to local national parks.

In addition, Book Nooks distributed free books through little free libraries at the national parks. And seven branch libraries had “trailheads” installed that offered maps, reading and resources for visiting National Parks in the area. 

Christine Lehnerts, superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said, “This partnership with the San Francisco Public Library is a fantastic way for kids and their families to get to know the national parks in their backyard.” 

Summer Stride includes more than 800 learning and exploration programs for the whole family, like LEGO robotics, engineering, magic, crafts, summer films, and more. ibraries to local national parks.  Last year, 18,644 people participated from May 7 through August 14, while 8,310 participants read 138,583 hours.

In addition, the library held 28 ranger talks, provided 10 free shuttles to local national parks, held seven trailheads in branch libraries, led edible excursions at the San Francisco Ferry Building, offered nine terrarium building classes and brought the library’s mobile kitchen, Biblio Bistro, to local farmers markets.

Also, 822 teens volunteered a total of 8,805 hours during Summer Stride.  Katherine Jardine, public relations officer with the library, said, “The idea was to do beyond the book learning, bringing library services outside the walls and keeping families and kids active during the summer months.”

That libraries are filling an urgent need is borne out by research from the National Summer Learning Association, as presented in a position paper from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Assocation (ALA). The research shows that all young people who do not engage in educational activities over the summer experience learning loss.  Over the summer, it says, low-income students lose more than two months in math skills and reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.

The position paper provides statistics from Oxford Learning showing that more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth is attributable to unequal access to summer learning opportunities. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.

In addition, by the end of 6th grade, students who experience summer learning loss are an average of two years behind their peers.  Also, two-thirds of the income-based achievement gap is attributed to summer learning loss by the start of high school.

YALSA provides several resources on its summer learning site.  Another division of ALA, the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC), also provides summer reading lists.

School libraries as well as public libraries are combating the summer slide. One example is River Road High School in Amarillo, Texas. Alison Kirkpatrick, school librarian, received an Innovative Grant from the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Innovative Reading Grant, sponsored by Capstone, The $2,500 grant supports the planning and implementation of a unique and innovative program for children that motivates and encourages reading, especially with struggling readers.

The goal of Kirkpatrick’s program, Books4Keeps: K-6 Book Drive, is to prevent summer slide and promote academic achievement for River Road Independent School District's most economically disadvantaged students in grades K-6.

In the program’s inaugural year, Kirkpatrick coordinated fundraising events, solicited monetary donations and sought donations of gently used books. More than 2,400 books were collected for the “book drive book fair” and 152 River Road students were allowed to select 12 books to not only read over the summer, but to keep permanently.

A post-summer survey revealed overwhelmingly positive results. Sixty-seven percent of participating students reported reading all the books they received, and 73 percent indicated they had read more over the summer than ever before. Students also reported sharing books with friends and family.

Using the AASL grant funds, Kirkpatrick plans to expand the program prior to the 2017 summer break. Not only will she increase the number of participating students to 200, but she also plans to bring reading materials to all members of the economically disadvantaged households so siblings will also have access. Her goal is to see an increase in of summer reading of 75 percent and improved scores on the 2017 state reading test.

All of which proves that school may be out for summer, but learning is always in season at your library.