Teachers at Arlington’s Barrett Elementary School have revamped their summer reading program this year to better reach at-risk kids, relocating from the school to a grassy field just outside Gates of Ballston Community Center. The program, Book Blast, helps children borrow books and maintain reading skills.
In previous years, Barrett’s summer reading programs were held in the school library. But first-grade teacher Jen Flores and others who ran the program noticed one group of students never showed up to check out books: at-risk kids from low-income families.
“The families that work all day and get off the bus, and have to come home and take care of babies and don’t have cars, those folks were not making it over to us,” Flores said.
So this summer, participating teachers decided to bring the approximately 1,300 books — donated by Books for America and other groups — to the community center, which is near the apartments where many at-risk children in the community live.
They also chose to meet in the evenings rather than during the workday, to better meet the needs of families with parents who work.
Most Friday evenings during the summer, when the Arlington Food Assistance Center also serves 80 families in the neighboring apartment complex, Barrett teachers and one of several Arlington County children’s librarians show up at the center.
Librarians read aloud and lead sing-alongs, and each child can check out up to three books.
The response has been positive, Flores said.
Last year, when the summer reading program was held at Barrett, none of the preschool to second-grade children who attended were from the school’s identified at-risk families. This year, between 40 and 60 kids from that group participate each week.
“To go from zero to 40 kids is amazing and to go from zero to 60 kids is beyond my wildest dreams,” Flores said.
Bringing books to the kids cuts through the twin hurdles faced by low-income families — lack of transportation and time.
“A lot of the families that I talk with have not ever even been to the library,” Flores said. “When you don’t have a car and you’ve gone to work and typically probably done something pretty physical all day, and then gotten home — let’s be real, that’s exhausting.”
Flores added that, often, one mom will bring a group of kids to the program, and that is more workable than when it was further away.
“She couldn’t walk a mile with all of those kids to the library, but she can walk across the parking lot” to the center Flores said.
Barrett teachers plan to track the school performance of children who participated in Book Blast this summer, hoping the boost in reading will pay off in stronger skills this fall.
“We’re trying to promote a love of books, build vocabulary, all those great things, and we’re also trying to prevent a reading slide for some of them,” Flores said. “I’m interested to spend time with that information when they get back in school and see the impact that was made. That’s the next step.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.