Summer Reading Initiative Helps Students Build Culturally Relevant Personal Libraries
DISTRICT | August 4, 2020
Summer Reading Initiative Helps Students Build Culturally Relevant Personal Libraries

Families who visit Willa Cather Elementary in East Garfield Park on a weekday morning will leave with more than breakfast and lunch through the district’s grab-and-go meal program. Principal Wanda Carey makes sure that every student also takes home a pack of several high-quality books to keep them reading during the summer.

“At Cather, we’re always trying to get students to pick up books and read more overall,” said Principal Carey. “Our message to them is just to keep reading. Read, read, read!”

Cather is one of 43 CPS schools participating in the district’s Summer Reading Initiative. Through funding from the Children First Fund and its partners such as IMC Chicago Charitable Foundation, Hilco Global, and the Big Ten, these schools receive hundreds of packs of modern, culturally relevant texts that students from kindergarten through eighth grade are able to take home and keep. Every title has been selected to align with the district’s Literacy Vision, which focuses on providing an abundance of engaging material that reflects the experiences of the district’s diverse student population.

“We want students to see that reading and writing are for and about them,” said Dr. Jane Fleming, CPS Director of Literacy. “A lot of the books we are providing through this initiative are authored by writers of color and are stories that students can see themselves in. There are many academic benefits to bringing what you know to the experience of reading and writing.”

During a typical school year, Principal Carey instructs each of her teachers to provide time during the day for students to read independently. Each one of her classrooms has a cozy, well-stocked library area that provides a comfortable environment for them to pick up a book. However, with students having finished the school year remotely and now on summer break, Principal Carey knows that carving out a time and place to read might not be top of mind for her students at home.

That’s why she’s excited that the district has partnered with the Chicago Public Library to include a copy of their summer Explorer’s Guide in every book pack. She also knows that her students will relate to titles like Ada Twist, Scientist and Last Stop on Market Street.

“I love that the books are Afrocentric and geared toward the kids in the neighborhood. I’ve been telling my literacy teacher the titles and he’ll say: ‘Oh, that one is an award winner. That other one is a great book,’” said Principal Carey. “We also make sure that every student gets the Explorer’s Guide because it has extra activities and ways that parents can get involved in reading with the students.”

Since students do not have to return the books, the district hopes that this initiative acts as a springboard for them building a personal library at home. Dr. Fleming and her team hope that, in reading more books, students will also start to explore other types of texts such as short articles, podcasts, and instructional videos.

“There’s been substantial research that demonstrates that even a small home library can really make a difference in terms of students’ long-term academic trajectories,” said Dr. Fleming. “This couples with our mission to increase access to high-quality texts in general, and we also want to expand the notion of what a text can be.”

The Summer Reading Initiative is only the latest phase of an equity-centered strategy to provide more students with resources to read and learn at home. In the spring, CPS partnered with 50 high-need schools to provide books, learning supplies such as crayons and paper, and exploration activities to supplement remote learning. The district also partnered with Bernie’s Book Bank to provide an additional 25,000 book packs for students and families.

As the summer starts to wind down, the next phase will be promoting easily accessible resources, such as the CPS Virtual Library, that families can use when school starts in September.

“The virtual library is a wealth of knowledge right at our fingertips, so I definitely want to incorporate it to make the school days more challenging and fun,” said Principal Carey. “Even if my students aren’t able to access their cozy classroom libraries, they can virtually check out pretty much any title that they want.”

And while students at Cather might have to wait a little longer to have the special feeling of checking out a book from their classroom library, they’ll have a lot of opportunities to have the special feeling of discovering their new favorite story.

Interested in supporting the Children First Fund’s efforts to provide diverse and engaging books for students across the city? Visit