June 14, 2016
When the final bell of the semester rings throughout Chicago schools this week, city leaders don't want it to signal a pause in learning.
To combat the "summer slide" when kids swap reading for Popsicles and bike rides, all 80 branches of the Chicago Public Library system will give a dozen free books to any child who registers for the library's summer program.
The giveaway, announced Tuesday, is not only a new effort unprecedented in scale — it's expected to distribute more than 1 million books — but a way to address a persistent lack of access to books in low-income neighborhoods, organizers said.
There, on average, 300 children share a single book. For middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, library officials said.
"The challenge is that there are many homes in Chicago that do not have age-appropriate books for kids," Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon said. "Obviously you can take a library book home, but owning your own is very different."
As part of the giveaway, school-age children will receive a bag filled with a dozen fiction and nonfiction books when they register for summer programming starting Monday. Those younger than 5 also will receive a free transportation-themed book.
"The kids we're serving all have the same ambition, they want to be successful. The only way to get there is to read your way there," said Brian Floriani, founder and executive director of Bernie's Book Bank, an organization that collects and distributes books to at-risk children. "And you can't read what you don't have."
The giveaway and continued public library offerings should contribute to more residents being able to have books in their home, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.
"You don't want a child to only experience books at either school or the library — as if the home is not a part of that," he said.
That difference between having or lacking books in the house as a youngster can have huge, rippling effects, said Dr. Dana Suskind, a University of Chicago surgeon who also studies the effect of language exposure during the first years of life.
Unlike the heart or lungs, she said, a baby's brain is underdeveloped and deeply affected by any stimuli from birth to full development. For that, she said, there's nothing better than reading or being read to, and as early as possible.
Reading creates a powerful bond between caregiver and child. It introduces unimaginable worlds, stokes curiosity and fosters understanding of other cultures and people. In the most basic sense, she said, it teaches children how it feels to handle a book and flip a page.
"You get to learn about things you may never see, like outer space or the Amazon," Suskind said. "There is no more concentrated time of interaction."
But when children miss out on reading during crucial early years — as those born into poverty often do — it becomes extremely difficult to catch up, Suskind said.
"Tragically, it plays out everywhere, even before the kids are ready to enter school," she said.
The Chicago Public Library's giveaway complements a summer learning program intended to encourage other types of learning fueled by creation and discovery.
"For some kids, it can be difficult to read," said Elizabeth McChesney, the library system's director of children's services. "By the age of 9, if it's not easy for them or fun for them … they just turn away from it."
She said she's seen 12-year-olds turn their summer readings into graphic novels. Others might come to explore aviation via homemade hovercrafts or master the basics of physics by building straw bridges.
"Over time, if children aren't continuing to learn summer after summer after summer, you start seeing significant learning loss accumulate," Bannon said.
Without that offseason stimulation, he said, children can start the following school year anywhere from three to six months behind where they left off.
"So September's not really September; it's more like March," Emanuel said.
And children who participated in the library's Summer Learning Challenge in recent years have made gains of 15 percent in reading and 20 percent in math compared with peers, according to ongoing analysis by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children.
"In the summer, you don't click off the brain," Emanuel said. "The kids that participate are starting September as if it's October or November."
Bernie's Book Bank, which is providing almost all of the giveaway's books, began distributing them throughout branches last week, Floriani said. If enrollment in the library's summer program matches last year's almost 100,000, he said, the book giveaway could top 1 million over the course of the season.
Floriani hopes it could be a model for other major metro areas where low-income neighborhoods also continue to grapple with access to age-appropriate books.
"There are variables that we might take for granted," he said. "For a family that's struggling — whether because of money or travel — even getting to the library is a different story."
Source: Chicago Tribune