February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Chicago Public Library Wins Founder’s Award for Stemming Summer Slide

The Chicago Public Library (CPL) is the winner of this year’s Founder’s Award from The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), recognizing CPL’s high level of collaboration and coordination with other city groups.

“The library is in lockstep with museums and other cultural institutions which makes the program more than possible, it makes it sustainable,” says Sarah Pitcock, NSLA’s chief  executive officer. “It’s unparalleled.”

CPL, which has been offering summer educational opportunities for 39 years, is hardly a stranger to supporting students when the “summer slide,” or loss of learning, can occur. In the summer of 2014, Elizabeth McChesney, CPL’s director of children’s services, shepherded a revamp of its offerings, to “reframe summer reading as summer learning,” says  McChesney.

The goal included pushing the boundaries of the system’s reading programs while also embedding more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities. McChesney knew she wanted to widen the community of groups CPL worked with during the summer on children’s programming. Literacy is still front and center of CPL’s focus, but now youngsters are encouraged to read 20 minutes a day instead of a set number of books.

Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which provided professional development for CPL’s children’s librarians, branch managers, and clerical staff, was a core partner this summer, helping to create STEM-based activities students could work on at the library and also at home. Space, which was the theme of the curriculum, was aligned to standards for preschool through 12th grade.

Rahm’s Little Readers (named for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel), focused on preschoolers, with CPL also posting suggested projects, such as sing-alongs, or drawing, for parents to engage in with their children. Michael Dahl’s On The Launch Pad (Picture Window Books, 2004) and Jacqueline Mitton’s Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations (National Geographic, 1998) were two of the books carrying the outer space thread,

For students in kindergarten through eighth grade, CPL ran Explore and Soar, which included handing out 50,000 copies of its 40-page Explorer’s Guide, featuring self-paced choices, from designing a rocket ship to calculating how much a child weighs when not on Earth. Art and science tasks were also offered as well as links to the Museum of Science and Industry’s Summer Brain Games for additional at-home science experiments.

Teens took part in drop-in classes through Defy Gravity, with media labs and engineering activities that encourage students to take apart objects to build something new.

CPL’s summer programs are also being evaluated by Chapin Hall, a research center at the University of Chicago. Results from the 2013 version of Rahm’s Readers, for example, show that of those who participated, “…the youngest children and those students with the highest levels of involvement, on average performed better on standardized academic assessments relative to peers with equivalent prior academic backgrounds, and personal and neighborhood circumstances,” according to a release from the City of Chicago.

“If we can show libraries can play an important role in the learning space, that’s where we can have a leg up in the dialogue in supporting a healthy learning ecosystem in the city,” says Brian Bannon, commissioner of CPL.“Libraries should be leading and pushing the conversation.”

About 90 different groups applied for NSLA’s awards, Pitcock says. Three other finalists earned the New York Life Excellence in Summer Learning Awards. As the Founder’s Award winner, CPL receives a $7,500 cash prize, sponsored by the New York Life Foundation, and will become a model for other library systems, she adds.

“In so many cities you have kids in one school who might have five options for them in the summer and one school would have none because no one is talking to each other,” says Pitcock. “Because of the coordination in Chicago, they’re reaching so many more kids.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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