Get Ready for Endless Summer Learning

A focus on learning—encompassing reading—reflects an evolving mind-set for librarians who run summer programs for kids and teens.
Illustration by Dan Page

Illustration by Dan Page

Longtime Seattle Public Library (SPL) patrons have been known to hang on to summer reading logs from their childhood. In fact, Amy Twito, SPL’s informal learning program manager, remembers seeing book titles related to the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle in the library’s archives.

So she understands the nostalgia that some people feel toward a feature that has long been part of SPL’s history. “If you did it when you were a kid, then you want your kid to do it,” she says.


Participants in Seattle Public Library’s
Summer of Learning initiative

Such patrons’ fond memories are just a small part of what SPL’s staff has had to consider in expanding its summer reading program for children and teens to focus more on broader learning. For one, more planning and work is involved in organizing and delivering hands-on learning activities for students than was required to manage the summer reading program.

“To be honest, it was easier to sit back and count the number of books your participants read,” Twito says.

As in many systems, the reading program was essentially a contest in which children would win prizes for reading a specific number of books while they were out of school. The top winner from each of the system’s 27 branches would then be invited to a special breakfast at the Space Needle or a nice hotel.

Delivering SPL’s Summer of Learning, on the other hand, requires significant community outreach, training for librarians on STEM-related topics and careful scheduling to make sure programs are reaching children who have the greatest needs.

Light bulb moment

These are the types of lessons librarians across the country are learning as they transform their traditional summer reading programs into summer learning programs. The shift, which began with the Chicago Public Library (CPL) in 2013, is an effort to prevent the learning “slide” that often occurs for children as soon as school lets out for the summer. These expanded summer programs also reflect librarians’ growing emphasis on STEM learning and helping children find 1603-EndlessSum_CHICAGO_tele-PQ-Vert3ways to pursue their interests.

“It was a giant light bulb moment for me to hear the research about learning loss,” says Elizabeth McChesney, CPL’s director of system wide children’s services. “It felt like an imperative.”

She helped launch CPL’s Summer Learning Challenge after attending a National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) conference, and has since spoken with representatives from over 200 libraries. “People are hungry for ways to meet their kids’ needs,” she says. Since 2012, participation in CPL’s summer programs has increased from 50,000 students to 99,000 last summer—including kids who didn’t join in the past because they were not into reading, McChesney speculates. As part of CPL’s Challenge, children are still expected to set reading goals—at least 20 minutes a day—and work toward a total of 500 minutes. But STEM and STEAM activities are now also provided in all 80 branches across the city, and art projects have become maker challenges, printed on small cards, that children can complete in the library or at home. One challenge related to Three Billy Goats Gruff, for example, asks students to design something that helps the three goats cross the river and avoid the troll. The activities, McChesney says, involve science and engineering skills and give parents ideas for similar projects at home.

“These cards promote storytelling and help kids find patterns in language,” she adds. “All this ladders up to building executive function in kids.”

Some aspects of participation can happen remotely, but not all of it. Participants can submit some of their work online, participate in contests, and earn digital badges.

Twito says she believes the growing focus on learning is also a reflection of the changing role of today’s librarians. “The days are long gone when a librarian sits at a desk and waits for someone to ask them a question,” she says.

Three approaches to summer learning

While many school districts provide summer learning opportunities, the number of children they are able to accommodate is often limited—and sometimes the programs are not free. Public libraries are able to keep students engaged in learning over the summer, and play up “the joy of learning” by responding to children’s interests or giving them experiences that schools might not have the time or funds to provide during the school year, says Emily Samose, director of education and learning initiatives at the Urban Libraries Council (ULC). Summer reading programs have tended to attract students who are already strong readers, but these new initiatives are drawing in children and youth who may not usually think of spending time in the library over the summer.

“The libraries are catching the kids who aren’t being served in other places—reaching more kids in more places in more ways,” Samose says.

Over a year ago, NSLA and ULC began working together to better understand how library programming during the summer is changing. With a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, they launched Accelerate Summer: A Partnership for Learning. The project began with a survey of ULC’s 160 members, which include urban as well as rural and suburban library systems. As part of the project, the organizations will also develop resources for libraries on summer learning and release a leadership brief later this year.

The survey responses showed three directions that libraries are taking to build up the emphasis on summer learning. Some are doing what Samose calls “reading-plus,” which is still an incentive-based approach, but gives children credit for other educational activities they complete, such as a STEM-related project or an outdoor lesson. Next are “high-quality drop-in” activities, which have clear educational goals but still accommodate families’ needs for spur-of-the-moment outings. While standards for summer learning programs do exist, Sarah Pitcock, NSLA’s chief executive officer, says one challenge for libraries using this model is to determine “what quality looks like in these kinds of programs where you might not have the same kids every day.”

Eighty-three percent of kids in New Haven Public Library’s READy for the Grade program maintained or exceeded their reading level. Photo courtesy of New Haven Free Public Library

Eighty-three percent of kids in New Haven Public Library’s READy for the Grade program maintained or exceeded their reading level. Photo courtesy of New Haven Free Public Library

Enrollment-based programs are the third model being implemented in some communities. These have a stronger focus on specific outcomes and are often designed in collaboration with local schools. The New Haven (CT) Free Public Library (NHFPL), for example, began offering “READy for the Grade” in 2013 at its Fair Haven branch, located in a predominantly Latino community. Funded by a grant from the New Alliance Foundation, the program targets first-to-third graders who are reading below grade level and come from low-income families. Serving 42 children last summer, the program includes group tutoring, one-on-one support, and family literacy nights.

Initiatives such as these require strong parent involvement and supportive working relationships with local schools, says Xia Feng, the public services administrator for youth services at NHFPL. The library worked with principals, literacy coaches and kindergarten teachers to plan the curriculum and discuss which children to recruit. A bilingual coordinator from the New Haven Public Schools was hired to lead the program, along with a school media specialist, district teaching assistants, and education majors to work as tutors.

Even without such direct involvement from schools, however, libraries are using strategies to make sure their programs are serving children who are least likely to participate in other enrichment and learning activities over the summer.

Because SPL’s summer programs are now offered over a series of days or weeks—instead of just one-time drop-in events—registration is required so the branches can plan for materials and have enough staff members present. But SPL uses a rolling registration process so programs don’t immediately fill up with the children of parents who sign up on the first day, Twito says. The branches are also taking programs out into the community, working, for example, with an afterschool program in a public housing development. SPL also created a science activity booklet so students who couldn’t get to the library could work on activities at home.

In Chicago, roughly 30,000 children enrolled in the Chicago Park District’s day camps automatically become part of the Summer Learning Challenge, McChesney says. CPL’s 80 branches also collaborate with Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA and other organizations that are serving low-income children.

Support from experts

Libraries partner with experts in the STEM fields to design high-quality learning experiences that are connected to what students might be learning during the school year. CPL’s programs are planned in partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry. Last summer, a learning center with a space and solar system theme, for example, featured an astronaut’s suit. Children would try on rubber gloves to experiment with how it might feel to work in the thick gloves astronauts wear. SPL is working with the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science to design some of the summer programs.

Even with the involvement of content-area experts, however, leaders say ongoing professional development for librarians is still needed in order for them to grow more comfortable with the STEM topics or more comfortable with an age group they haven’t worked with in the past. In Chicago, librarians receive 20 to 30 hours of professional development each year related to the Summer Learning Challenge.

While the majority of children served in summer learning programs are in elementary school or younger, the focus on learning is also changing the way libraries are interacting with teens. In Chicago, for example, the more than 1,100 teens who volunteer in the library during the summer months will now also be learning how to assist during programs for younger children and talk about the science concepts involved. In Seattle, instead of performing what Twito calls “old-school” volunteer work, such as re-shelving or sticking labels on books, high school students can earn service learning hours through perhaps researching a social issue or completing a project that benefits the community.

Some 99,000 kids participated in Chicago Public Library’s 2015 Summer Learning Challenge. Photo courtesy of Chicago Public Library

Some 99,000 kids participated in Chicago Public Library’s 2015 Summer Learning Challenge.
Photo courtesy of Chicago Public Library

Aiming for deeper engagement

Another lesson emerging from library systems’ new emphasis on summer learning is that librarians are viewing their impact in a different way. In the past, success might have been measured by packing 200 children into a room for a puppet show. Now, librarians say, the focus is more on engaging with children in a deeper way, although, as Twito says, “it costs just as much or even more to do a program that serves a smaller group of kids but maybe has a bigger impact.”

SPL is working with an outside evaluator to track whether the program so far is reaching the students most at risk of falling behind during the summer. William Vesneski of Luma Consulting, who focused his analysis on last summer’s Wild Science theme, used surveys of parents and youth, as well as interviews with librarians, to gather feedback on the program. He found that 78 percent of the schools most often named by the respondents predominantly serve low-income children of color, and that many of those also serve students who speak a language other than English at home. “This indicates that the Summer of Learning program is succeeding at attracting children who may have particular difficulty in school,” he wrote in his report.

In general, both parents and children were positive about the program, especially the focus on STEM. Responses showed, however, that some children don’t have support from parents or guardians to complete the science activity book. Vesneski, as a result, recommended simplifying the book. He also suggested bringing back a more explicit focus on reading—along with some reward or recognition for reading a certain number of books—since some parents and librarians feel the new program should still have a reading component.

While participation is being calculated for each branch, Twito would eventually like to see exactly which schools those children are attending so she can see whether academic performance is also being affected. “Then we would have some data,” she says.

In New Haven, Feng worked with the school district’s data specialist to track outcomes for children enrolled in READy for the Grade. In 2014, 83 percent of the students either maintained their reading level or exceeded it. With additional funding from the foundation, the library will move the program to another branch this summer so it can reach different schools.

In Chicago, the Chapin Hall Center for Children (, a research center at the University of Chicago, has been evaluating CPL’s Summer Learning Challenge and comparing where students typically would be scoring in reading and math to where they are after participating in the summer program. The initial results from 2013 show that students who participated in the program scored 15 percent higher in reading and 20 percent higher in math.

Reading still at the core

Chad Weiden, principal of Edgebrook Elementary School in the northwestern corner of Chicago, began requiring all of his students to participate in the Summer Learning Challenge in 2014. “We really believe in engaging minds throughout the summer,” he says.

He sees consistent improvement in the test scores of students who participate in the reading and challenge activities “with fidelity,” he says. While students currently can choose anything they want to read, Weiden thinks that aligning the summer program with the texts students are reading in school would result in even more benefits.

When McChesney talks about the Summer Learning Challenge, she always tells people that books and reading are still “the core of everything we do.” In a Wild Science workbook, for example, children are asked to write about a book that has inspired them. Twito adds that in Seattle, summer learning programs have not completely replaced “one-off” events with puppets, magicians, or local singers. “There would probably be a city-wide riot if we stopped doing the drop-ins,” she says.

As McChesney sees it, the shift in summer programming is a “mind-set change” toward the work that children’s and youth librarians have always embraced.

“We’ve always done art, but now it’s a design challenge. It’s more open ended,” she says. “Kids gain a lot from seeing live animals come to the library. Now we’re very expressly discussing what you’re learning.”

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I used to love to go to the library when I was a kid. I would check out as many books as my mother would let me, I was a big book worm. I think it is great that the Seattle Public Library is working to help children keep learning during the summer. Thanks for sharing!

Posted : Apr 02, 2016 12:54