BY KRISSI HUMBARD — The library at Rosa Parks Elementary School is abuzz on Thursday mornings, even though school is not in session. In the library, elementary-aged children and their siblings grab their nametags and sit in a circle on a colorful rug, waiting to see what volunteers have in store that morning.
Each Thursday morning since the end of the school year, 40-60 children ages 0-11 have gathered in the school’s library for the Volunteer Summer Reading Program, a free “pop-up library,” as volunteer and member of Hyattsville’s Education Advisory Committee (EAC) Jen Kubit called it.
Sandwiched between the free breakfast and free lunch offered each day by Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), the reading program begins at 9:30 a.m. and runs until 11 a.m. and engages students in games, learning activities, story time and reading time. Most of the kids and families in the program speak Spanish, so the program is bilingual. During reading time, the children read with volunteers or by themselves while some of the older children read to their younger siblings. The kids have access to all the books in the library and keep track of what books they have read and what they thought about them.
“We timed [the program] so [families] could take advantage of the free breakfast before and the free lunch after,” said newly appointed Rosa Parks Elementary School Principal Rhonda Summey. She praised the program, saying, “It’s pretty amazing that [the kids] have been able to practice reading with support.”
Kathy Dow-Burger, or Ms. Kathy as the kids call her, said the idea for the program came at an EAC meeting back in February. Dow-Burger is the EAC chair and a University of Maryland (UMD) Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. She said the committee was looking to refine their goals and objectives and discussing how they could support schools and students. That’s when Kubit mentioned the “summer slump.”
“We were especially concerned about our Hyattsville children in the Title I schools who could benefit from specialized activities, such as reading, during the summer months,” Dow-Burger said, adding that “the majority of the families [at Title I schools] cannot send their children to summer camps or provide opportunities to get additional academic support to combat the regression that happens during the summer.”
Summer is a critical time when students either leap ahead or fall behind, according to Reading is Fundamental (RIF), a literacy advocacy nonprofit. RIF says that during the summer months, all children are at risk of losing some of the learning obtained during the school year — especially children from low-income families. More than 80 percent of children from economically disadvantaged communities lose reading skills over the summer because they lack access to books, learning resources, and such enrichment opportunities as trips to the library, bookstore, or museum.
The EAC approached school leaders at Rosa Parks Elementary and Felegy Elementary, but ultimately decided to do a pilot program at one school to start. Calling it a “true community effort,” Dow-Burger said city staff, the EAC and leaders from Rosa Parks met to discuss details of the program. Dow-Burger and fellow EAC member Jan Edwards, who is the Associate Director of the Language Science Center at UMD, recruited more than 20 UMD students as volunteers. Then-councilmembers for Wards 2 and 3 Shani Warner, Robert Croslin, Tom Wright and Patrick Paschall contributed funds that they had left over to help defray the cost of fingerprinting and background checks for volunteers.
“It was quite the group effort,” Dow-Burger said. “Programs such as this bring the community — students, parents/caregivers, volunteers, school administrators, local government — together because this is something everyone can share and work on together.”
Rosa Parks Elementary PTA president Candida Garcia, speaking through a translator, said the school was interested in joining the program because parents realized the school didn’t offer after school programs that specialize in reading. Reading is “a great feat,” Garcia said, because a lot of parents have trouble teaching their children how to read in English, since it’s not their native language.
“The committee approached us and I immediately said ‘yes’ because this is what the parents had been wanting for awhile,” Garcia said.
The program has been going on since June and those involved say the group of kids has been consistent. Garcia said she has definitely seen a difference in the kids since the beginning of the program. “Aside from progress, I’ve noticed a huge increase in the motivation about reading and how they feel about reading, with the parents and the kids,” she said.
Garcia makes the rounds during the reading program, talking with kids about the books they are reading and says the kids are really excited to come to “book club” — including her own. “They are excited that they get to pick their own book from the library.”
The Summer Reading Program wouldn’t be what it is without the volunteers from UMD. Jessica Nolasco, who grew up in the area and recently graduated from UMD, is one of those volunteers and serves as the translator and helps read with the kids.
Talking about her experience as a volunteer, Nolasco said it would be too difficult to pick a favorite moment from the program. “Each [kid] is a different experience. I think all of them are my favorite.” Smiling, she talked about helping different kids figure out where they are in the reading process, and reading with a 6 year old, 4 year old and 2 year old and how excited they all were when they talked about the animals in the book.
“Seeing how excited [the kids] get about it, and how they really want to grow, I think that’s my favorite part about this whole thing,” Nolasco said.
The group is holding an end-of-summer reading celebration for the kids during the last session on Aug. 10. The organizers have been collecting new and gently used children’s books to give to the families to take home. They’ve put together an Amazon wish list for donated books and are accepting donations through Aug. 3.
Garcia said there hasn’t been any concrete dialogue about how the program will move forward. But adds that she definitely thinks the program needs to be expanded. “What I would like to see is for it to expand to more schools, more kids, maybe more days so that kids can keep up with the routine and the practice of reading casually and consistently.”
Dow-Burger said programs like these are important for the community as well as those in higher education because it allows the students and professors to take part, first-hand, and to learn more about who their community is and what their needs may be.
“Don’t get me wrong, I — along with everyone else — are benefiting as much as the children and caregivers because we get to experience genuine relationships with no strings attached; pure and simple through books,” she said.