Make Your Summer Reading Program Really Count

Posted by Susan Brackney

When it comes to the role libraries should play in their communities, Lisa McClure doesn’t mince words: “Librarians often don’t think big enough!”

Formerly the Youth and Family Services Director at Hartford Public Library in Hartford, Connecticut, McClure now serves as Community Engagement Manager with the Libraries Division of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—and she knows a thing or two about thinking big.

When McClure started at Hartford in August of 2011, she asked library staff about the success of their summer reading program. “[They said,] ‘We had a great summer reading program! We had about 30 kids involved at each branch,’ and I said, ‘So, you’re serving about 300 kids each summer? That’s good. But how many kids are in the school system?”

“And it was about 26,000 kids. I said, ‘Three hundred out of 26,000 is a really small group.’ It’s basically no impact…. We had to serve the other 25,700 kids, and, so, I decided what my impact should be,” she recalled.

In two years’ time, Hartford Public Library would go from serving just one percent of area students to serving 68 percent of them. Here’s how they did it—and how you can, too.

Think Bigger

Think Bigger

For McClure, “thinking big” starts with thinking about loyalties. She explained, “Too many librarians think they owe their loyalty, they owe their deliverables, to the library, but that’s not what it is. They owe good service and programming to the community…. Libraries have to realize that we have a responsibility to our funders and our communities.”

“If you want your community changed, you can’t think about what little things you can do. You have to think about what you should do,” she added.

Once McClure and Hartford Public Library determined what should be achieved for the community—in this case, tackling children’s reading proficiency and summer learning loss—it was time to think about potential partners, ways to make an impact, and very specific measures of success.

Just how specific were those metrics? Well, for example, McClure set a goal of 100 percent of public school children registered for summer learning in the next three years, with at least 25 percent of Hartford children reaching reading goals. In the Year 1 Pilot, several schools registered at the 100 percent level, with one school increasing from a tenth of a percent of students reaching reading goals to a grand total of 48 percent of students reaching reading goals. “We collected data by age, grade, school, and library branch. We thought really clearly about results and what data we wanted, before we planned our program,” McClure said.

“We also expanded our idea of who our customer was, and what we could do for them. We wanted to reach all children, not just the ones that came into the library.” The library received funding from the City and the Hartford Foundation to work with home and family child care facilities and local camp providers. Child care facilities received a visit from an early childhood specialist and could earn books and toys for each location. Camp providers could receive training on literacy activities, track their reading, and earn prizes from a treasure box. “By year two, we were serving 88 home and family child care facilities, and 79 percent of 85 local providers of summer camps,” McClure said.


Reach Out

If you think reaching out to area schools means occasionally visiting a classroom here or there, think again. “Librarians usually talk only to individual teachers and ask them if they can come into their classrooms to push summer learning. ‘This principal will let me in, and this teacher will let me in, and this person lets me talk for five minutes during an assembly,” McClure said.

(But that’s thinking small!)

“If you’re a small library, you kind of have to forget that you are a small library and go right to the movers and shakers. You want to go in and say, ‘I have something of value to you and you need to partner with me,’” she continued. “I partnered with the schools and the City at a level that most people don’t. We had six summer learning programs.”

Although she was new in her role at Hartford, McClure made an appointment with the superintendent and the academic officer for early learning and school readiness. She noted, “They were very interested in the whole summer learning concept. We planned it at the highest level, and it went out as a directive to the principals: ‘We expect you to do this.’”

Rather than register for the online summer reading program, Summer Reader, at one of the Hartford Public Library branches, students registered at their respective schools. School children would register at school the week before school ended, so there would be an easy transition to summer learning, the ball would never be dropped, and parents would not face total responsibility for summer learning. School registration would streamline services, remove barriers to access, and ensure a continued commitment to reading. “Part of… registering at the schools and working towards 100 percent registration was taking that burden away from the low-staffed [library] branches,” she said.

Collaborating at such a high level had other benefits. “I had a very small youth budget, and I was able to bring in twice as much as my entire budget just to fund summer [learning] by grants and collaborations and work with the City,” McClure said. As a result, she was able to hire a trainer to teach childcare workers at community-based organizations how to incorporate literacy-boosting activities.


Use (and Share) Data

Hartford Public Library collaborated with the City, schools, assorted literacy organizations, and the Summer Learning Committee from the Hartford Campaign for Grade Level Reading along the way, and, together, they agreed on which data sets to gather and share. “You need to make sure that you have common data sets with your collaborators, so that you are all measuring the same things.” McClure said. “If we could compare them all, we would have a really full picture of what was happening summer learning-wise in Hartford.”

The collaborators monitored the number of kids participating in the summer reading program, as well as their reading frequency, changes in attitudes and behaviors, how many kids were reaching their reading goals, and much more.

“We gave the [library] branches as much support as they could take. We hired teens to work a couple of afternoons a week. They would set up computers and say, ‘Let me help you record your summer reading’ to make sure we got the data. Because if you say, ‘We want to collect the data’ and you don’t work the hardest you can to make sure that data is getting input, you’re not getting good data,” McClure warned.

“Most summer learning programs don’t collect enough data. And they spend a whole bunch of money and say, ‘Gee, I really hope that this helps improve kids’ scores,’ but they have no idea,” she added.

The good news? With planning, high-level collaboration, and careful analysis of the right data sets, you and your library just might be unstoppable. “You’ve got to take ownership, see what you need to do to accomplish [your goals], and go with the thought that you can do it,” McClure said.

Want to learn more about the work in Hartford? During ALA 2014, Lisa McClure co-presented “More Than Fun in the Sun! Building Collaborative Relationships and Using Real Data to Increase Summer Learning” with Susan Cormier, Children’s Services Consultant at the Connecticut State Library, and Matt Sheley, Evanced’s Vice President of Product Design and Marketing. You can download a PDF of the presentation here.

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