Turning the Summer Slide into a Helping Hand

One of the biggest issues facing student achievement and continuous improvement is the summer slide. Research has shown that over the summer, all students lose some reading ability, with low-income students losing the most, and this gap widens each summer. However, students who read at least 5-6 books at their reading levels over the summer months can maintain/improve their reading skills. While summer reading programs at public libraries can keep kids reading over the long summer months, many children don’t participate because of transportation, location, or motivation. One solution that has proven effective in systems throughout the country is keeping the school library open during the summer.

Elizabeth Polk is the Assistant Director for Libraries at the Austin Independent School District in Austin, Texas. “Over half of Austin’s students live in poverty and school libraries may be their first and only access to books and resources so that they may not only practice and grow as readers, but also develop crucial library and information literacy skills,” explains Polk. Participating schools are all in the Title One program and librarians must have support from their school principals. Student participation is most likely to be highest where free lunches or breakfasts are offered. Cynthia Helms at Champaign Public Schools in Illinois followed the same model of coinciding library hours to free meals. She was able to keep all elementary and middle school libraries open daily for limited hours for most of the summer break.

Polk explains that “During the school year, students don’t have time to browse because of testing–this is when they get to really experience reading for pleasure.” As the supervisor for Austin ISD’s library program, Polk finds the funding and develops the format for the program.

Before the summer break begins, librarians send out information to parents ahead of time with permission slips. The libraries are not open all day long or every day though some do one evening a week so parents can come and read along with the kids, providing an opportunity to grow adult literacy as well. “Parents don’t know that they are their children’s first teachers–there are lots of things they can do at home,” comments Polk. “You can teach colors, shapes, and counting just by taking your children to the grocery store.”

Elizabeth Polk finds choosing a common theme to be useful as well. The 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico put ocean science into the news, so that summer they focused on oceanography. “The students looked up applicable science experiments and found one on how to clean birds,” remembers Polk. The realities of the impact of the oil spill and part of the solution became real to those students. They also learned a new way of seeing the library and its overall usefulness.

This next summer’s theme will be green: “We’ll be gardening, recycling, and practicing some of the ideas we research,” promises Polk. Librarians have latitude to be creative as well. Polk points to “One librarian who does fun activities to teach major skills like making home-made ice cream. The students learn how to measure and how things freeze.” She adds, that for school libraries over the summer, “There’s no homework, no studying, and kids come to read for the fun of it.”

The studies all point to the importance of reading over the summer to prevent the summer slide. In Austin, the school libraries keep a record of how many books each child reads and how often he or she comes to the library. “For children in poverty and those who don’t have lots of books in their home, they just don’t have access to books.” Transportation, however, remains a challenge. School buses don’t run during the summer and liability issues keep city buses from transporting kids to the schools. “We’re still exploring options,” says the confident Polk.

This service is not intended to replace a public library’s outreach efforts. “We take walking field trips to the public library.” Polk concludes that “We want them to be lifelong readers and come to know and appreciate the power and pleasure of books.”

In Champaign, the findings were similarly positive: “Students and families that used the school libraries were enthusiastic about having access to a library in their neighborhood during the summer.” An added benefit was that “The children also enjoyed being in their school library and seeing their school librarian, someone they know and who knows what they like to read, help them find books.”

A student who has built a relationship with the library and the librarian during the summer is more likely to use the resources more extensively during the following school year.