For Summer Learning, District Sends Students to Library

Aug 8, 2012

The brochure for the summer learning program encourages kids to dream big. (East Baton Rouge Parish Library)

East Baton Rouge Parish public school students are back in the classroom Wednesday. Almost inevitably, teachers will start by re-teaching material students forgot while they were on vacation. To minimize that learning loss over the summer, the district pointed students to the parish library.

Storytime is the bait for the East Baton Rouge Parish library's summer reading program.

On a Tuesday afternoon in June at the Delmont Gardens branch, children's librarian Ginger Coon casts her line with a story about a sleepless sheep named Russell.

As soon as she closes the book, Coon reels them in, surveying the parents, grand parents, and older siblings to make sure that all the children in the room -- even the babies -- are signed up for summer reading.

"Yours are all signed up for summer reading?," she asks.

More than 15,000 children, ages 11 and younger, signed up this summer, each promising to read between three and 10 books.

Just how many, Coon explains, depended on whether he or she was reading thick chapter books or skinny ones with lots of pictures.

"If they're in 5th grade and they're only reading on a 1st grade level, we want them to be comfortable. ... We want them to read books that they're going to enjoy and be successful with."

Before vacation started, Coon, like her colleagues from other parish library branches, visited nearby schools to evangelize the reading program.

Cathy Seal, director of library services for the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, helped coordinate those visits at the public schools. She also put together brochures for the program including recommended reading lists and sent enough to the schools for every student to get one.

"That's pretty much what we do to encourage them to learn over the summer," Seal says.  "We send 'em to the public library and encourage parents to read with them in any way possible."

Evidence compiled in a national report commissioned by the Wallace Foundation shows that on average students lose a month of knowledge over summer vacation. Students from low-income families tend to fall even further behind.

Ann Stone is senior research and evaluation officer at the Wallace Foundation. Stone says the East Baton Rouge parish library's reading program may not be enough to shore up students' skills. The most effective programs are much more intensive.

"If you're really trying to do something about summer learning loss, a minimum of five weeks is a good guideline, and also three to five hours of academic instruction is typically recommended as a minimum."

The East Baton Rouge Parish School District's only summer offerings are remedial programs for students who failed to meet the reading or math standards needed to move on to the next grade.

The non-profit Big Buddy runs a month-long program with 20 hours of instruction a week, This summer, it served 600 students from four of the district's most challenged elementary schools and one middle school. But beyond that, Big Buddy Executive Director Gaylynne Mack says intensive summer programs are few and far between in Baton Rouge, especially for students from families with scant resources.

"There are definitely private-run programs, but again that separates the haves and the have-nots -- those privately-run programs cost money," Mack says. "There are community agencies, there are churches out there that are doing free to low-cost programs, but it is definitely not what we need."

For many students, the library is all they've got.

And overall, participation in the summer reading program at branches in poorer neighborhoods tends to be just a fraction of what it is at branches like Jones Creek and Bluebonnet. Pabby Arnold, head of children's services for the parish library, says even the price of gas can be a factor in whether or not books make it into a child's hands.

"We had several summers ago when our numbers dropped a lot because the price of gas got so high that parents and day cares and summer camps and all, just were not getting in the cars to come to the libraries."

Thankfully, gas prices have been relatively steady since.

And the number of kids reaching their reading quota has been creeping up along with overall participation in recent summers -- from 39 percent in 2009 to better than 41 percent in 2011.

The Delmont Garden's branch threw its party to celebrate summer reading at the end of July, with games, and face painting, and fruit punch.

Ireonna Watts, who's entering 5th grade in Baton Rouge, read 10 books to fill out her log.

"I like reading because it helps my strategies for school in reading, it makes my reading stronger when I get to school."

Watts says her reading skills help her especially in math.