Larisa Garcia scanned the library shelves at Irving Elementary School, trying to decide which book to check out next.
She settled on a few, including R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder,” found a pillow chair, plopped down and started reading.
“I love seeing this,” said librarian Tracy Koppenhaver, motioning around the room.
Several students read aloud to their parents, siblings or volunteer tutors. Others played vocabulary or math games on laptop computers. Several stood in line to turn in last week’s books and check out others.
“I feel like we have these awesome resources,” she said, “and it’s sad to see them just sitting there unused over the summer.”
Irving Elementary, at 16th and Market in Wichita’s Midtown neighborhood, is one of a handful of school libraries opening their doors for limited hours this summer in an effort to boost reading and combat the well-documented “summer learning slide,” which can lead to debilitating achievement gaps between poor children and their middle-class or affluent peers.
In the Wichita district, about three-fourths of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty.
For those kids, “the romantic (summertime) ideal just doesn’t exist,” said Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, a Baltimore-based nonprofit advocacy group. “There’s just not an opportunity to ride your bike, to go outside, to chase the fireflies. That’s not what’s happening.
“What’s happening is kids are home alone, very often, with not a lot of books or not a lot of food in the home. So we have this situation where the school doors close for the summer, and … their access to resources closes off as well.”
At Irving Elementary, Koppenhaver and other volunteers staff the library from 10 to 11 a.m. every Wednesday. Current and former students, as well as older or younger siblings, walk to the school from surrounding neighborhoods. Some ride their bikes or are driven by parents or older siblings.
“It’s always, ‘I’m bored. I’m bored.’ So we decided to come over here,” said Marta Pulido, who operates a daycare home near Irving. “It’s something different to do, and they can play or get books.”
Other Wichita schools opening their libraries during the summer include Allen, Harry Street, Isely, Minneha, Payne and Seltzer. The cost is minimal, said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman, because most are staffed with volunteers or operate alongside latchkey programs or other summer activities.
Access to books
Literacy experts say access to books is essential to childhood literacy and long-term academic success, particularly for poor children and particularly over the summer months.
According to Reading is Fundamental, of the 16 million children living in poverty in the United States, about two-thirds don’t have books in their homes. So not surprisingly, more than 80 percent of poor children lose reading skills over the summer – anywhere from one to three months worth of learning – and by the end of fifth grade, many are three years behind their more affluent peers.
“Access to print … is certainly an issue around the country,” said Judy Cheatham, vice president of literacy services for RIF. “They also don’t have access to libraries. … So this achievement gap takes place in the summer, when children are opportunity poor.”
Recent research bears that out. As part of a two-year project called Read for Success, RIF distributed a collection of high-quality, multicultural books to 33,000 second-, third- and fourth-graders in some of the most underserved school districts in 16 states.
On average, 57 percent of students who participated showed statistically significant improvements in their reading from spring to fall. Students performing below the 10th percentile in each grade showed the greatest increase in reading proficiency.
Cheatham said the study illustrates how access to books and educational materials helps ensure that kids keep learning over summer break.
“Even if it’s not expensive, even if it’s not fancy, it can make a difference,” she said.
Intensive reading, writing
Expanded library hours are just part of the Wichita district’s focus on summer learning.
At several priority and focus schools – those identified as among the lowest-performing schools in the state or ones that have the largest achievement gaps – struggling readers are getting intensive reading instruction along with free breakfast and lunch.
“There’s little or no reinforcement at home,” said Trina Wynn, principal at Linwood Elementary School in south Wichita. “Just having access to books, access to print, reading aloud and working on those phonics skills – it makes a difference.”
As part of a grant-funded summer program, about 180 students from four elementaries meet Monday through Thursday mornings at Linwood. After breakfast, they split into groups of about 10 – based on reading levels rather than grades – and spend the next three and a half hours reviewing phonics, playing reading games and practicing their writing.
One recent morning, teacher Patricia Ericson led a discussion about how students could meet new friends or foster friendships.
“Ask questions to get to know them,” one girl offered.
“Make them laugh,” said another.
“Invite them to hang out and play.”
“You also can be a good listener,” another student said.
“Very good,” Ericson said, nodding. “Sometimes we have a tendency to want to talk too much, don’t we?”
“Yeah, I talk a lot,” the girl said, smiling.
“Me, too,” Ericson said. “But sometimes it’s more important to listen, right?
“There are all kinds of things you can do to make new friends. I want you to put them in order of what you think is most important, and we’re going to write about that.”
The intensive reading and writing camps are taking place at four Wichita elementary schools – Allen, Caldwell, Linwood and Enterprise – serving kids from 13 schools. Elsewhere, the district is hosting STEM academies, programs for special-needs students, enrichment classes for gifted students and middle school programs focused on reading, writing and math for students needing additional support.
Wynn, the Linwood principal, said the extra days of focused reading and writing at Linwood should help students stay on track or even increase their reading and writing skills over the summer months.
“Normally we have to start back over” when school starts in the fall, she said. “They go down drastically. It takes at least six weeks to get them back to (their spring) level. We’re hoping to see that these kids don’t lose anything.”
Cheatham, the RIF official, said summer reading programs in schools and elsewhere are crucial, especially for poor or struggling students. And because there’s not an emphasis on tests or grades, they can be much more relaxed and fun.
“It’s almost like that spoonful of sugar, where you don’t even know you’re doing the kind of learning you’re doing,” she said.
Stop the summer slide
Studies show that kids can lose up to three months of learning over summer vacation. Experts suggest these strategies to keep children learning while still having fun:
▪ Read, read, read. Educators say children and teens should read at least 30 minutes a day, every day. Parents should be good role models, reading aloud to kids or alongside them when they’re older.
▪ Check out the library. The Wichita library’s free summer reading programs run through July 31. Branches also host guest speakers, musicians and other fun activities.
▪ Pursue a passion. Whether your child is interested in dinosaurs, space, baseball or ballet, pledge to learn more about it. Check out books from the library, scour the Internet or find someone to shadow at work.
▪ Plan outings. Visit museums, art galleries, the zoo and other destinations. Everyday errands, such as a trip to the grocery store or veterinarian’s office, can be educational, too.
▪ Talk to a teacher. Talk to someone who teaches the grade your child will start in the fall. Ask what kinds of books, math concepts and other activities they cover, and let that guide some of your activities.
▪ Get cooking. Baking is a good way to practice reading, measuring, computing fractions and following directions. Older children can plan a brunch or dinner party and invite guests.
▪ Plant a garden. Use an outdoor thermometer and rain gauge to track temperatures and precipitation.
▪ Explore photography. Give your child a camera or video recorder. Let him document a day or week in your family’s life.
▪ Play word games. For preschoolers, label household items – mirrors, cabinets, chairs, etc. – so they begin to recognize those words. Ask questions: “What rhymes with ‘bat’? How many syllables in ‘refrigerator’? Think of a word that begins with ‘T.’ ”
▪ Explore music. Begin music lessons, or encourage your child to practice his musical instrument. Attend local concerts.
▪ Write on. Get a pen pal, or just write a letter to a friend or family member. Compile a family newsletter. Write text for wordless picture books. Keep a journal or scrapbook.
▪ Fix it. Let kids attempt a small repair or remodeling project. Just be sure to supervise.
▪ Have a yard sale. Let your child organize and run the sale. It’s a great way to get rid of stuff, and it teaches kids about money.
▪ Theme me! Kids love a theme. Declare the week of July 4th “America Week.” Schedule a trip to Cowtown, read a biography of George Washington and make apple pie. Cap it off with fireworks on the Fourth. Brainstorm other ideas: Nature Week, Music Week, etc.
▪ Make games. If you live in the Wichita school district, check out the Parent Teacher Resource Center, 412 S. Main. The center has educational activities, equipment for laminating and bookbinding, resource books and more.
▪ Play board games. Games like Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders teach children how to count, recognize colors and take turns. Older kids can learn a lot from Scrabble, Catch Phrase, Scattergories, Risk and others.
▪ Memorize. Challenge your child to memorize a favorite poem or story. Or let a group of kids perform a short play.
Check out these books
Reading is Fundamental’s Multicultural Booklist includes 39 children’s books specially selected to encourage children’s interest in a broad range of topics, including science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, history and social studies. The collection also emphasizes multiculturalism and diversity in its books’ content, characters, authors and illustrators.
To find the list, visit the RIF website at www.rif.org. There, parents, teachers and caregivers also can find free, downloadable activities to deepen students’ engagement with the books.