My mother was my first teacher. She taught me to read, and nurtured my love of reading, filling my world with the printed word. (As a child, I had a word wall in my bedroom in place of wall paper.) A talented teacher for 40 years, she was a mentor to me during my own first year teaching.
So I know first-hand that families are children’s first teachers. We teach our children every day through our actions and expectations. All families want their children to do well, and the truth is that many families need tools and strategies to help their children succeed academically.
My district, Hillside Public Schools, is located in Union County, New Jersey, and we serve approximately 3,000 students in grades Pre-K–12. Fifty-two percent of the student population is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. The families of Hillside are hard-working families who are interested in their children’s education. Similar to many school districts, we faced the challenge of summer learning loss and finding effective ways to encourage children to keep reading during the summer.
Hillside Public Schools and Summer Reading: Partnering with Families
When I started as the district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I brought almost 20 years of experience as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, and college professor. These years of experience, as well as my mom’s legacy, taught me the importance of partnering with families and communities to support student achievement.
During my first meeting with the Language Arts Supervisor, I was informed that the returns for summer reading projects were limited. As I looked into why this could be, I thought about how I had just spent the summer assisting my own son with his summer reading project. We had to go to 3 stores to find all of the books he needed, and another store for supplies to complete the project. Perhaps the problem was access—families did not have the books their children needed for summer reading.
We surveyed parents, and the data showed that many families were eager, not just for just the books, but also for workshops and materials around family literacy and the home-school connection. Once we identified a need, we collaborated so the district could provide resources: books and strategies for families. We formed a Summer Reading Committee—consisting of the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, a principal, teachers, content supervisors, the Hillside Public Library and a PTO member—and had a Summer Reading Kick-off Celebration. The Summer Reading Committee met monthly, and we revised the summer reading lists find high-interest reading material for the students.
An Important Step: Celebrating Books and Reading
We decided to make the summer reading kick-off event a fun celebration of reading, including a barbeque, music, dancing, face painting and of course summer reading packet giveaways for all students who attended. (Clifford the Big Red Dog was a hit, too!) We also offered workshop for parents to help them with strategies for reading with their children. The event was publicized in the community, on the district website and with the local media.
We’ve been able to see results from providing this access to books. In terms of data, our Language Arts scores on the PARCC assessment increased in almost all grade levels. We’ve seen small increases (1%, 4% or 5%), but we are certainly showing growth. And I also love hearing stories from students and families themselves: a grandmother, who is raising her special-needs grandson, told us that the books go everywhere with her grandson during the summer. He is never without a book, often refuses to let go of them, and truly cherishes his books. She also noted that the books and summer reading provides additional stability in her grandchild’s life.
The Second Annual Summer Reading Kick-off was an even greater success than the first: we were able to increase the participation rate thanks to positive feedback from the first annual kick-off. Families lined up before the doors opened! Moms, dads, grandparents and guardians were so excited to help their children with summer reading and the students were equally excited to receive the books. We had a blast and danced into the afternoon. It was great to see the students—and parents—rushing home to read!