Why Not School Libraries in Summer?

Why Not School Libraries in Summer?Can you stand one more piece of advice about summer reading?  It’s one that could have long-term results for your school districts, if you parents get on board.  This post is in honor of my father-in-law and sister-in-law, whose lives have been devoted to running college libraries, including those at Bowdoin College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University (before my father-in-law went off to head a library foundation and offer advice to libraries around the world).

I bet that all students who love their college libraries started by loving the ones in their elementary schools.  I actually remember my own elementary school library a lot better and a lot more fondly than I remember the ones I should have perhaps spent more time in at Cornell University.  I probably took the Merion Elementary School library for granted—just as I did the community library where we stopped off in the summer whenever we felt like it to pick up a new book or two (that was before you could get them all electronically).

But, as I have said previously, every kid in the U.S. does not have such easy access to community libraries in the summer, and every kid in the U.S. cannot afford to buy whatever books might make the long summer days a little more enjoyable.

So, that brings me to a variety of articles in the education press lately about school libraries that are opening up in the summer to provide books and programs for kids who want them—and need them.  At Education Week’s Time and Learning blog, Marva Hinton wrote an intriguing story about one such school district effort in New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina.

In an interview, New Hanover County Schools librarian Jennifer LaGarde talks about three features of her school district’s summer library program:

  • Staffing by a school library media coordinator, so that kids can get the help they might need to select suitable books and get excited about them
  • Offering other programs at the library, so that kids can come and explore other ways to have a good time—in addition to reading
  • Opening up school libraries in neighborhoods where many kids can easily walk to them (or be walked to them by older siblings), so they don’t need transportation they might not have available

It couldn’t be simpler.  And it couldn’t be cheaper.  What would a school district have to pay to run such a program?  The school district would have to come up with funds to pay for the librarians’ time (just part time for the hours the libraries are open—maybe half-days, maybe only certain days of the week), for keeping the buildings open, and maybe for bringing in some special programs.

Would the investment be worth it?  Yes, according to the research I have been reading and writing about for the past month or two.  Kids cannot read in the summer if they don’t have books, and too many kids don’t have books.

We are lucky, as a society that cares about kids and literacy, that the problem is so fixable.

It is time to take a look at what your school district’s libraries will be up to next summer—if you aren’t fortunate enough to know already.  Parents, especially elementary school parents, do this when school opens again for 2016-2017:

Ask your school board to talk about whether it has a policy on the use of school libraries in the summer.  This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity first to meet with the superintendent about the reasons for and history of whatever that policy is.

If there is a policy, congratulations!  Ask for the data on how many students visited the libraries and how many books were taken out in the summer of 2016.  Compare those data to data from previous summers, if available.  Ask whether there are plans being made to continue or to expand the library program for next summer.

If there is no policy, perhaps it is time to advocate for one—especially if your school district has elementary school kids who do not have access to a variety of books at home in the summer.  When would school libraries be open?  Which school libraries would be open?  Who would staff them?  How much would it all cost?  Where could the money come from in the school district budget?

By the way, parents, school libraries are a great resource that all kids need, even kids with plenty of their own books at home—unless maybe you have a librarian around the house.

Read About Something

Read About Something

Summer reading—you just can’t get away from it.  It seems as though I have been writing about it nonstop.  And still, on my way to tour Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill estate yesterday, my master’s-degree-student daughter read aloud a digital sign outside the super-lovely Oyster Bay High School as we sailed by:  “Enjoy summer reading!”  She smiled—with relief, I’m sure, thinking that is no longer her problem.

I wrote recently about the value of focusing kids’ summer reading on books they choose for themselves and about why reading for enjoyment rather than for skill improvement gets better summer results (and better lasting results once kids go back to school).   Now I want to share some facts from an article I just read by Lisa Hansel and Robert Pondiscio in Education Week Teacher.  I have known these facts for many years, after seeing it all firsthand while working with teachers on curriculum projects all over the country.  You might know these facts, too, if you are paying close attention to what your own kids are being taught in school.  Here are a few crucial quotations from the article:

  • “A nationally representative survey found that in grades K–3, just 19 minutes a day are devoted to science and a mere 16 minutes to social studies.”
  • “The situation is not much better in grades 4–6, where just 45 minutes a day are devoted to social studies and science combined.”
  • “Worse yet: Research indicates that schools serving our neediest students spend even less time on these important—and inspiring—subjects.”
  • “A child does not become a strong reader by learning to sound out words and practicing reading alone (though these are important). Reading comprehension—the ability to make meaning from text—is largely a reflection of a child’s overall education. Good readers tend to know at least a little about a broad range of things.”

So, why the short shrift given to social studies and science?  One reason is that teachers in some school districts are actually being asked—or required—to devote more and more minutes to teaching reading each day (often, though not always, to improve reading test scores).  Another reason is that some teachers, especially in the primary grades, feel more comfortable teaching reading than social studies and much more comfortable teaching reading than science.  But, whatever the causes, the effects can be disastrous.

Authors Hansel and Pondiscio work on Knowledge Matters, a campaign designed to solve the problem, according to their website:

“Nearly every major educational goal—from improving reading comprehension and critical thinking to problem solving and creativity—is knowledge based. Without a solid foundation of content knowledge built from the first days of school, higher academic standards and better student outcomes will not be achieved. Fifty years of research definitively [show] that knowledge is vital to language comprehension—the starting line for all other learning and analysis. Broad, shared knowledge is vital to citizenship, too, yet the curriculum of many schools has narrowed. To address this challenge, we must ensure that history, science, geography, art, music, and more are generously taught to all students, especially those least likely to gain such knowledge outside school.”

Maybe we can work on summer reading and the unfortunately missing subject matter content in elementary schools at the same time.

Parents of elementary school students, do this now:  Look for some great summer reading books that contain subject matter content.  Let your kids choose from among them.  Here are a few great series in the arts and sciences (I cannot emphasize strongly enough how good these books are):

  • The Adventures in Art series (published by Prestel Verlag) offers drop-dead gorgeous books about artists and their works, with fantastic illustrations, probably most suitable for students in grades 3 and up. Parents, you will find them lovely and enjoyable, too.  Choose from a huge variety, including Paul Klee: Animal Tricks; The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Salvador Dali; Frida Kahlo: The Artist in the Blue House; Marc Chagall: Life is a Dream; One Day in Japan with Hokusai; Edward Hopper: Summer at the Seashore; Claude Monet: The Magician of Color; and many more.
  • The Getting To Know the World’s Greatest Artists series (written and illustrated by Mike Venezia) offers easy-to-read artist biographies, with funny illustrations as well as reproductions of works of art, probably most suitable for students in grades K–2 (though, believe me, I have learned plenty from them myself). Choose from Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Dorothea Lange, Pieter Bruegel, James McNeill Whistler, Rembrandt, Diego Velázquez, and many, many more.
  • The Giants of Science series (written by Kathleen Krull) offers super-entertaining, not-at-all-dry biographies of world-famous scientists, probably most suitable for students in grades 4 or 5 and up (and for all parents—like me—who are not science geniuses themselves). Choose from Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, and more.

So, as the sign outside Oyster Bay High School said, “Enjoy summer reading!”

Surprises About College Remediation

Surprises About College Remediation on ParentChat with ReginaYou couldn’t know less about college remedial courses. That’s what I found out from a recent report just released by Education Reform Now. It was an eye-opening read for me and will be for you, too, parents. In case you think that remedial classes are where low-income kids from underfunded urban high schools hang out once they go to the local community college, you are wrong—at least about half the time anyway.

Here are just a few quotations that should make your head spin as you think both about your own children and about our nation’s children (see the excellent full report, co-authored by Mary Nguyen Barry and Michael Dannenberg, for more information):

  • “In 2011, over half a million rising college freshmen—approximately one in four students entering college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of enrollment in an institution of higher education.”
  • “The aggregate additional, direct college expenses these half million students and families had to pay out of pocket for remedial coursework in the first year . . . was nearly $1.5 billion.”
  • “Of those half million students, nearly half—45 percent—came from middle, upper-middle, and high-income families.”
  • “Only 57 percent were enrolled in public community colleges.”
  • At private four-year colleges, “remedial students from the top 20 percent of national family incomes report taking one more developmental class than students from the bottom 20 percent of national family incomes: 2.7 vs. 1.6 classes.”
  • “Underprepared students from families in the top income quintile (incomes above $113,440) that attended private nonprofit four-year colleges spent on average over $12,000 extra to study content they should have learned in high school.”
  • “First-time full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students who take a developmental education course in the first year after high school graduation are 74 percent more likely to drop out of college than first-time full-time non-remedial students.”
  • “Even among those that do graduate, first-time full-time [bachelor’s degree-seeking] remedial students take 11 months longer . . . to complete [their degree] than non-remedial students.”

In reflecting on all this in our USACollegeChat podcast episode this week (“Episode 76: College Remedial Course Statistics You Didn’t Know”), my cohost Marie Segares and I simply say, “What is wrong with this picture and whose fault is it?” Because anybody can see that something is plainly wrong.

Is it that colleges have unreasonable standards? Is it that high schools are not doing the job they should be doing in preparing kids for college? Is it that high schools are inflating grades to get more kids to graduate and to get more kids into better colleges? Is it that more and more kids are going to college when some probably shouldn’t?

You can choose your own favorite explanation, but I am putting a healthy share of the blame on high schools. I don’t do that lightly (having co-founded a public high school in New York City not so long ago), but I do it, just the same. I have watched kids struggle with remedial English and math courses in college, sometimes having to take them more than once, condemned to a purgatory of remediation from which many never escape—a purgatory of lackluster courses, often taught by adjuncts who are not full-time employees of the college. Anyone can see that’s not going to end well.

And what about all the talk of making kids “college ready”—talk that has increasingly flooded the education world in the past five years, talk from researchers as well as from high school educators? If you believe the data in this report, high schools are failing to make one in four college freshmen “college ready”—and that’s not counting the kids who didn’t make it to college in the first place.

As a parent, you probably can’t solve this problem. But if you would like to go into your child’s high school years with your eyes open, here are a few ideas:

  • Ask your high school principal to tell you and your fellow parents what percent of graduates from the high school have to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. If your principal does not know that statistic, he or she should find out. Immediately.
  • Ask your superintendent to tell you and your fellow parents what percent of graduates from the school district have to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. If your superintendent does not know that statistic, he or she should find out. Immediately.
  • Make sure that your child’s English and math skills are improving every year of high school and that your child takes challenging courses in both fields.
  • Check to see that your child is reading nonfiction and fiction and writing coherent and analytical pieces every week (and not all in English class).
  • Read what your child is writing for school assignments before they are turned in to satisfy yourself about the quality of your child’s writing.
  • If you are thinking to spend money on an SAT prep course, consider whether that money would be better spent on making sure that your child is actually improving his or her English and math skills and not just learning how to take the test—get a tutor if your child needs help and enroll your child in an enrichment summer course at a nearby college if he or she doesn’t.

When your child complains about your increased attention to his or her English and math skills, say this: “College remedial courses are the last place you want to be, because you might never get out.” That should do it.

SAT/ACT: Required for All Students?

SAT/ACT: Required for All Students? on ParentChat with ReginaHere’s a trend I missed (and I do this for a living): Almost half of the states and many individual school districts in other states are now requiring all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, and they are footing the bill. Perhaps equally important, they are testing the students during the school day in the students’ own school. Well, that certainly makes life easier for a lot of high school students and their families. Not having to pay for the test is one thing (without even having to get a waiver from the testing company); but not having to figure out how to register, get your child to some testing site that might be new to you both, and make sure your child arrives at the crack of dawn on a Saturday might be even better.

Some states are indeed using the SAT or ACT as the final piece of their state testing program rather than giving a state-developed test or one of the new tests designed to match the Common Core Standards, thus lessening the testing burden for high school students, many of whom would have had to take the SAT and/or ACT for college admission purposes in addition to their state’s own test. Connecticut, one of the most recent states to jump on board, will be giving the SAT this year to all of its high school juniors at no cost, but will not require a minimum SAT score to graduate.

Now, there is a lot of talk among educators at the state and local level and in higher education about whether the SAT and ACT actually measure a state’s own curriculum standards and, thus, whether the SAT or ACT could fairly be used as a measure of what students learned in their high school classes. Some argue that tests specifically developed by the state or by one of the testing companies associated with the Common Core work that many states have adopted would be the only fair assessment.

Of course, no parent would ever wonder about that because it is just a matter of common sense. Let’s take the SAT. Clearly, it measures English and mathematics skills—skills befitting a high school student who is about to graduate and, hopefully, continue his or her education at a college. Shouldn’t that be good enough as a test of a student’s capabilities—regardless of what the state curriculum standards do or don’t say?

What could be a better definition of “college-ready”—the education buzzword of the last five years—than that students can do reasonably well on a test that hundreds and hundreds of U.S. colleges insist that students take before they apply? The fact that some colleges each year add themselves to the growing list of colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT for admission (the “test-optional” colleges) does not negate the fact that many, many colleges still do require the SAT or ACT for admission. Even many of the test-optional colleges tell students to send their SAT or ACT scores if they think that the scores are a good representation of their abilities (meaning, “send your scores if they are good and you think they will help you get in”). By the way, many, many students applying to great test-optional colleges do just that.

While I am no particular fan of either the SAT or ACT, I do recognize what a hurdle it is for some kids to jump and what a relief it would be for many families to have that hurdle removed. I have seen that hurdle up close in New York City. Here is a statistic that supports the point. According to a recent report of education in 50 U.S. cities just issued by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 15 percent or fewer of all high school students took the SAT or ACT in 2011–2012 in 32 of those cities. (The report, Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, explains that we might have expected the figure to be in the 25 to 50 percent range, if we believe that most eleventh and/or twelfth graders in a high school take these college admission tests in any given year.) However you look at it, urban high school students are not taking the SAT and ACT in the numbers that we would expect to see—or hope to see—if we believe that urban students should have the best shot at attending whatever college they wish, either right away or in the first few years after high school graduation.

If you live in a state or school district that requires all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, maybe now you can see how lucky you are. If you do not live in a state or school district that requires all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, it is time to take a close look at why not:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to have the superintendent provide the numbers of juniors and seniors and the percentages of the junior and senior classes that have taken the SAT or ACT in your school district over the past five years. Ask the school board to discuss whether administering the SAT or ACT to all eleventh graders in the spring and/or all twelfth graders in the early fall would be a good idea—either to confirm students’ “college readiness” as they leave your district or to ensure that every student has the opportunity to apply to any college requiring these test scores. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study background information before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators before and/or during the meeting, including what the cost would be of providing this testing at district expense and what, if anything, might have to be given up in the budget to make such testing possible.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal to provide the numbers of juniors and seniors and the percentages of the junior and senior classes that have taken the SAT or ACT in your school over the past five years (if you have more than one high school in your district). Ask your principal to discuss how students are advised about taking the SAT and/or ACT. Are all students encouraged to take one or both of the tests? Are all students advised about how many times to take the test and when to take the test? Are all students given help in registering for the tests? Are students who qualify for fee waivers given the help they need to get those waivers? Is the high school a designated testing site? If not, why not and what would it take for the high school to become a designated testing site?

P.S. After I wrote this and before we got it posted, New York City announced that it would offer the SAT at no cost to all public high school juniors, with the test given on a school day rather than on a Saturday. Great that it’s free! Great that the kids don’t have to register! Great that it’s given on a school day! All those hurdles have now been jumped. But just offer it? Why not require it? Almost perfect, New York City. So close.

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