From The Beacon: Summer reading can work wonders

Each summer the Beaufort County Public Library System, like most libraries across the nation, invests precious resources -- time, money and staff -- into summer reading programs designed to encourage children to learn to love to read.

This year, like years before, the number of children signing up to participate in the program grew. With support from the county, library advocacy groups and local businesses, the Beaufort County Public Libraries ran the 2010 Summer Reading Program, "Make a Splash, Make Waves @ Your Library," in which nearly 4,000 children and teens participated.

Like every year, the kids and their parents loved it. There were programs, games, weekly prizes for meeting reading goals and even a summer reading medal to take into school on the first day for Show and Tell.

Yes, it is a lot of work. Lines at the libraries are longer, children having fun get loud and books fly off the shelf at an unbelievable rate. In June alone, just one of our branch libraries had more than 20,000 children's materials checked out. Imagine being a staff member at the circulation desk scanning all of those items. So we ask ourselves, is it worth it?

The Beaufort County Public Library System is not the only organization that looked for answers. Because these programs take significant investment, recent economic conditions have caused many local, state and federal agencies to question the efficacy of such programs. A landmark study conducted in partnership with Dominican University, Johns Hopkins University Center for Summer Learning, Colorado State Library and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission was released recently. The three-year research study (2006-09) sought to answer this question: "Do public library summer reading programs impact student achievement?"

The study involved the collection of data through pre- and post-testing of students at the end of the third grade and the beginning of fourth grade; students participated in public library summer reading programs during the break between the two school years. Here are some of the amazing results listed in the study's executive summary:

  • Students who participated in the public library summer reading programs scored higher on reading achievement tests at the beginning of fourth grade than those students who did not participate.
  • Students who participated in the public library summer reading program reported they like to read books, like to go to the library and pick their own books to read.
  • Teachers, school librarians and public librarians observed that students who participated in the public library summer reading program returned to school ready to learn, improved their reading achievement and skills, increased their enjoyment of reading, were more motivated to read, were more confident in participating in classroom activities, read beyond what was required in their free time, perceived reading to be important and increased their fluency and comprehension.

According to a 2009 report by the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, South Carolina ranks 50th in the nation in "promoting power," a measure of the percentage of ninth grade students who progress to 12th grade in three years; only 61 percent of freshmen rise to become seniors on time. Worse yet, a 2009 report from Kids Count -- a nationwide data reporting organization funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- showed that from 2004 to 2006,

39.2 percent of eighth-graders in Beaufort County schools failed to graduate within four years. In an era where students have dismal reading scores on standardized tests and many schools are underperforming, public libraries have a solution to close the achievement gap in reading for every student, from every socio-economic and cultural background -- and that is participation in summer reading programs at the library.

So the answer to the question is a resounding yes. Public libraries and their early literacy programs are essential to help close that gap and improve school performance; they play a powerful role in the education community by helping chn maintain and gain reading skills.

We must continue to engage families in our Beaufort County Public Libraries and promote early childhood literacy -- but we need your help. We need to provide more early literacy programs both in the library and out in the community. We need to engage parents of school-age children so they understand the importance of their children participating in summer reading programs and other out-of-school library activities. We need to find creative ways to fund these much-needed programs in order to do all that we can for the children and the families of our community.

We're all part of the solution. You can volunteer at your local branch library, make a contribution to the Friends of the Library or the Public Library Foundation organizations or sponsor a library program or event that connects children to activities that reinforce a love of reading.

Summer reading programs are more than fun and they make much more than waves -- they build a bridge for every child, regardless of their circumstance, to a positive and prosperous future.