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Summer Learning Programs Surprise, Delight, and “Save the World”

by Kirsti MacPherson on September 6, 2023

As the weather warmed up earlier this year, library staffs across the country planned their summer learning programs. Ninety-nine percent of libraries offer them—for children, teens, and adults. Now that autumn is coming, it’s time to look at how these programs performed. Did they bring the joy of reading to their communities? Did they prevent the learning loss that many students struggle with?

Battling the “Summer Slide” and Pandemic Learning Loss

Parents and teachers often notice that students’ learning can plateau or even regress while they’re on an extended break from school. That happened during the Covid-19 pandemic and is common during summer vacation. However, summer learning programs come to the rescue.

“The summer months are the perfect time to reinforce skills [students] learned during the previous year and prepare them with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the classroom and in life,” explained Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez. This summer, Chicago Public Libraries offered career and technical education summer camps, as well as a neighborhood scavenger hunt and Maker Mondays.

“Parents have told me that their children’s reading skills often improve over the summer months,” one librarian reported in a survey of rural, suburban, and urban Pennsylvania libraries by Dr. Donna Celano and Dr. Susan B. Neuman. “Teachers have also told us that they can tell when students have participated in the reading club because they don’t have to reteach what [students] learned last year.” Another librarian in the survey commented, “Every story the child hears is a seed planted.”

Expanding a Library’s Reach

Summer programs give libraries the opportunity to connect with other kid-focused organizations. For example, in Celano and Neuman’s survey, 65 percent of respondents reported that they partnered with other community agencies when creating summer learning programs.

Wendy Campbell is the youth services supervisor for the Rowan (North Carolina) Public Library. “While I am thankful for the positive connections with individual families, I am also grateful for the unique opportunity RPL’s summer program brings to partner with local nonprofit [summer] camps,” she told the Salisbury Post. “I am pleased that we partner with these community-minded organizations, and I look forward to working with camp directors and counselors.”

Campbell continued, “This year we partnered with 18 local organizations with weekly educational shows, library visits and book checkouts. One outstanding summer highlight for me is building relationships with campers, learning about their interests and seeing their ready smiles of recognition when we meet weekly.”

Nationwide, 95 percent of public libraries report having at least one summer reading program partner. The most common partners are nonprofit or community-based organizations (64 percent), schools (63 percent), and state library agencies (63 percent).

“Gave My Children Something to Look Forward To”

Summer learning programs are a bright spot for lots of families, but especially for families who are on a budget. One parent told the Great River (Minnesota) Regional Library, “The summer reading program gave my children something to look forward to (trips to the library, choosing new books and videos, reading the books, and knowing they would get a prize at the end of the program).” This year, Great River had a total of 12,973 participants in summer learning programs throughout the regional system, according to Breanne Fruth, GRRL’s communications and development coordinator. GRRL has a total of 84,726 cardholders across six counties, Fruth explained.

People of all ages participated in the “Find Your Voice Community Art Show” at the Northborough Free Library in Massachusetts. The library received 140 submissions and displayed the art throughout the summer. Community members could vote on their favorites in four categories: kids, teens, adult amateur and adult pro. Local ice cream shops and grocery stores donated supplies and small prizes for the art show winners.

“The art show has been such a success that we’ll likely continue to host it annually. Northborough has certainly found their voice through art this summer!” said children’s services librarian Katrina Ireland-Bilodeau.

“Experiences That You Might Not Be Able to Get Anywhere Else”

Special events brought community members into the library and encouraged summertime learning for kids and adults. For example, staffers at the Grand Island (Nebraska) Public Library arranged for an interactive visit with raptors. The event was a resounding success, with children spellbound by the powerful birds of prey.

“We just like to bring in experiences that you might not be able to get anywhere else,” Laura Fentress, a youth and family services librarian at Grand Island, told KSNB-TV.

Danville Township Library in Illinois took their young readers to Gambia through the book One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul. The library’s Ecology Action Center program included reading and upcycling plastic bags into jewelry.

“It turned out to be a wonderful, informative program that kept their attention throughout, and the children proudly adorned themselves with their new creations while they looked for books afterward,” reported circulation specialist Tel Sisco after the event.

North Liberty Library in Iowa provided a wide variety of events. Some were pure fun, such as a foam party for kids at the library’s summer learning program kickoff party. Others were science-focused, such as an Insect Zoo event. And still others were to support basic needs, such as free lunches to ensure food stability.

Kids frolic in a foam party in front of the library.

Kids frolic at a foam party sponsored by Iowa’s North Liberty Library.

Emily O’Sheridan-Tabor, family services librarian at North Liberty, shared the results of her library’s summer learning program. “Eighty-eight percent of parents surveyed reported that their child maintained or increased their reading skills, while 89 percent of those surveyed reported that their child read and used the library more often,” she explained.

Kids weren’t the only ones to benefit. O’Sheridan-Tabor added, “Approximately 75 percent of adults surveyed said that they, themselves, learned something new, enjoyed reading more, and used the library more frequently.”

“Library Kids Are Going to Save the World”

Librarians responded to summer programs with optimism and took a breath before gearing up for autumn.

“I’m now confident that library kids are going to save the world,” Solano County (California) supervising librarian Mychal Threets announced in a viral TikTok video reported on by Upworthy.com. “Libraries and library books bring people together!”

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