If recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is any indication, literacy education is a challenge across the country, with only 35% of fourth graders and 34% of eighth graders reading proficiently or better (https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/).
In my district, Covert Public Schools, we face some additional challenges, including a 100% free and reduced lunch rate. Nearly 60% of our students are Hispanic, many of whom are dual-language learners. To help ensure our students have every opportunity to become strong readers, we support strong classroom instruction with a focus on family and community engagement.
Fortunately for us, as in many small towns, our schools are the heart of our community. Nevertheless, to build engagement for a rich, year-round commitment to reading and learning, we still have to make it a priority. Here’s how we do it.
Celebrating Every Victory
As a principal, the first community I look to build is the one in our schools, and that begins with supporting students’ individual successes. We use Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) to track student progress, so whenever a student gains a DRA level, we make a big deal about it. I visit their classroom with a Bluetooth speaker fanny pack, and we have a big celebration that spills out into the hallways. We celebrate every student who has gained a level without talking about what level they’re at—it’s the progress that matters, not the level itself. When it’s all over, I ask them, “If you want a celebration in your name, what do you need to do?” and all the kids respond in unison, “Keep reading!”
We also have a book exchange program throughout the year based in our Title I room. There’s a collection of books students can borrow, and they can also bring in their own to exchange.
Since we’re a small district—we only have about 380 students in my pre-K–12 school—we don’t have a library media specialist on staff. We are a stone’s throw from the community library, however, so once a week a class visits it. The librarian there reads them a story, and students get the opportunity to exchange books. Since they don’t have their own library cards, we have a plan where they can check books out under their teacher’s name.
Adapting to Your Community’s Needs
We’ve had an ongoing program called Breakfast with Books for three or four years now. Michigan law requires schools to hold literacy nights, but evening events aren’t great for our parents. Many of them work second or third shifts, and it’s common for others to attend church functions in the evenings, so we just turned our literacy nights into literacy mornings. We give students and parents a big breakfast to eat together, and we share a literacy strategy for the families to practice with their children. We also have the You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You books, which let parents and children take turns reading alternate pages so they can practice reading together. Since we switched this event to mornings to accommodate parents and families, attendance has been incredible. At the beginning of the program, we held meetings in the media center because it’s a nice, comfortable environment. After moving to the mornings, however, we had to relocate to the cafeteria just to have enough room for all the parents.
Finding and Supporting a Summer Literacy Program
No matter how well we help families focus on literacy during the school year, summer comes, and with it, the possibility that students will lose some of the reading gains they’ve made over the school year.
Originally, we tried to address this by extending the book exchange we have during the school year into the summer. Even among the students who participated in our summer school program, it didn’t work very well. Among children who weren’t coming to summer school, participation was even lower. There were maybe five families total who showed up consistently to exchange books. The poor participation sent me looking for a turnkey summer reading program and, knowing that transportation is a challenge in our rural district, I focused on programs that sent the books to students’ homes.
We settled on Kids Read Now (www.kidsreadnow.org), a program that allows students to create a wish list of nine books from a large collection of educator-approved titles. At a kick-off event in the spring, parents and students come together at the school, receive their first three books, and learn how the program works. Throughout the summer, parents report to Kids Read Now when their child finishes a book, then the organization mails them a new one. Each book, which students get to keep, has a discovery sheet sticker in it with discussion prompts and questions to help parents connect with their children over reading and encourage better comprehension. I wanted to give my parents every opportunity to take advantage of this program, so we held a special Breakfast with Books to teach them how to use the discovery sheets and report books through the app. We followed up with a pasta dinner—nothing builds community like feeding people—to catch any parents who couldn’t come in the morning. We brought in our technology guru, and he had us go in the auditorium, where he has lots of Wi-Fi access points so everyone could connect. We presented a slideshow walking them through the app and had plenty of staff on hand to help anyone who had difficulty.
Even after we got started, we went out of our way to make sure students were able to get as much out of the program as they put in. For example, we have a paraprofessional who tutors children in reading during summer school who taught her students to report their own books. She even reported books for some kids who weren’t able to come to summer school if she knew they were reading the books Kids Read Now sent.
We’ve done this summer reading program for a few years now, and it has been a great success. During summer 2019, we enrolled 184 students, who collectively read 1,559 books, more than eight each on average. Nearly all participating students, 181, read at least eight books over the summer. More to the point, all that reading prevented summer slide in our district. When we assess them in the fall, we’ve been finding that they haven’t lost any reading skills, even among at-risk students, and many even make progress over the summer.
It wouldn’t be a Covert Public Schools community event without some food, so when we go back to school in the fall, we hold a special Breakfast with Books meeting and celebrate the kids who kept reading throughout the break.
Claire Kliss (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the pre-K–12 principal at Covert Public Schools.