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Alle-Kiski Valley libraries, schools look to keep kids learning during summer

Emily Balser
| Sunday, June 18, 2017, 11:40 p.m.
Landon Smith, 5, of New Kensington, is handed a custom balloon animal at the Harrison Library during their kickoff event to encourage kids to continue to learn throughout the summer months.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
Landon Smith, 5, of New Kensington, is handed a custom balloon animal at the Harrison Library during their kickoff event to encourage kids to continue to learn throughout the summer months.
Jordyn Sobotka, 10, of Natrona Heights, checks out a series of books in the Harrison Library during their kickoff event on Saturday, June 17, 2017.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
Jordyn Sobotka, 10, of Natrona Heights, checks out a series of books in the Harrison Library during their kickoff event on Saturday, June 17, 2017.
Wyatt Gaschlerfield, 3, of Brackenridge, peels off a screen print of a peace symbol that he pressed himself during the Harrison Library kickoff event on Saturday, June 17, 2017.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
Wyatt Gaschlerfield, 3, of Brackenridge, peels off a screen print of a peace symbol that he pressed himself during the Harrison Library kickoff event on Saturday, June 17, 2017.

Many libraries already have their summer reading programs under way in an effort to provide summer activities and prevent children from losing their reading skills over summer break.

The theme for many libraries this summer is “Build a Better World,” which each library tailors to its specific ideas and activities.

Susan Wilson, youth services librarian with Harrison's branch of Community Library of Allegheny Valley, said they incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, or STEAM, activities each week to keep students interested in all subjects, not just reading.

“I think it's vital because it's not only reinforcing what they learn in school but making these out-of-school connections,” Wilson said. “It stays with them and they absorb it better when they're not worried they're going to be tested on it.”

The program in Harrison began Saturday. The library offer programs for everyone from infants to adults.

For younger kids, the library offers a weekly reader program that incorporates an art and craft. For older kids, the library offers a weekly STEAM program that is more hands-on, with things like clay creations or making small robots.

“We really promote all kinds of learning,” Wilson said.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Casey Smith said summer reading programs are essential to combat the “summer slide” that can occur when students lose the reading skills they've gained in school the previous year.

“Studies show that this negative impact is exacerbated by socioeconomic status — and the gap caused by summer slide only widens over time,” Smith said. “After just a few summers, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will see their reading achievement scores drop below national averages and, by the time they leave elementary school, those children will be, on average, about three grades behind their classmates hailing from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.”

She said experts say this happens because, although they have access to the same resources as their peers during the school year, that access declines — or even disappears — during the summer months.

Smith said summer reading programs provided by libraries have been proven to help maintain or even raise reading skills while school is out of session.

Janet Tyree, director of Springdale Public Library, said the library is focusing on how to improve the environment and make better choices to “Build a Better World.” The program will be every Tuesday beginning June 27. The library will have activities like recycling, studying coral reefs and designing a neighborhood.

“We want to show them, too, that the summer's not just about sports, not just about how much you can read but it's about doing all kinds of things (and) learning,” Tyree said.

She said they also add an outside component on one of the days to make sure kids can get outside and move around instead of staying inside for hours.

Tyree said the program has seen a decline in participants over the past 10 years with enrollment down from 80 at its highest down to around 40 this year.

She said it could be due to kids involved in other activities as well as being in daycare while parents work.

School districts look to summers as well

School districts also try to help keep students' skills up by sending home packets they can complete over the summer. They typically aren't graded, but are designed to keep students learning.

Apollo-Ridge Superintendent Matt Curci said they don't have assigned reading lists unless students are in honors or advanced placement English in high school.

“While there are not specific reading lists, summer packets are usually distributed that help reinforce skills previously learned or prepare them for new learning that will be upcoming,” Curci said. “These may be either focused on language arts or mathematics, but typically also relate to other content areas. Students may even be asked to select a book to read of their choosing, doing some sort of brief summary response after.”

He said the assignments aren't meant to be overwhelming, but are to keep students thinking and avoid regression.

Freeport Superintendent Ian Magness said they also provide reading lists for high school honors students and some summer assignments. He said they have also done summer programming for incoming kindergarten students.

“Our families do a wonderful job,” he said of keeping students engaged over the summer.

Joel Zarrow, CEO of Children's Literacy Initiative, a nonprofit that provides literacy resources to schools, said having students regress over the summer makes it that much harder to teachers once school begins in the fall.

“There's a lot more ground to make up,” he said.

Even if students can't or don't participate in a summer reading program, Zarrow said it's just as effective for parents to read with their kids or take them to a library to check-out books.

“It's incredibly important that parents take some very simple steps to keep their kids reading over the summer,” Zarrow said

Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4680, emilybalser@tribweb.com or via Twitter @emilybalser.

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