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Learning through Literacy: Grant Connects AISD Schools with Libraries

Late last month, kindergarten students at Graham Elementary School filed in, one by one, into their school library.

They tried to suppress their chatter and curiosity as they sat in the brightly colored, book-lined room, but today it was hard: a guest was at their campus, after all, and they had been summoned to meet her here, where she had with her a treasure trove of good books.                           

The guest pulled out the first one, “Miss McKenzie had a Farm,” and began reading. With each turn of the page, the students giggled and sat wide-eyed as the story unfolded.

To the students, the significance of this moment might not be immediately realized. But to their principal Blaine Helwig, it is monumental.

That’s because the guest is Josefina Rodriguez-Gibbs, the children’s librarian at the Little Walnut Branch Library. While the library is only three and a half miles away from the campus, for many of the students this is their first introduction to Rodriguez-Gibbs and their public library. Helwig hopes that by bringing the two together he can bridge a gap between his campus and public library, so that reading is not something that only happens for the students at school, during the school day. It instead becomes a habit and a life-long love, one that the library—and the entire community—has a stake in and nurtures.

“This is about relationship building. Our school has tremendous face time with our parents and we want to set the stage now and be a conduit for our families and the library,” Helwig said. “Summer is such a critical time of learning and regression occurs if our students are not reading.”

Instrumental to these efforts is that Graham Elementary and Blackshear Elementary School were recently awarded grants by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which, combined, total $35,000. The Connect 4 Literacy grant is funded through the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and provides funds so that youth services librarians at the Austin Public Library’s Little Walnut Springs and Carver Austin Public Branch Libraries can collaborate closely with school librarians, teachers and others to make sure that the public libraries have the materials children need to continue reading for pleasure and proficiency. 

The grant provides the schools with more than a dozen new novel sets, some which are classics and some that are new books with characters who students can relate to and be inspired by.  

“I’ve had students begging me not to stop reading,” said Graham Reading Specialist Olga Montee. “We’re trying to move away from just reading passages so that students are more engaged.”

By reading novel sets, Helwig said, students learn to love reading. 

“You get a student to read Roald Dahl and they’ll love reading,” Helwig said. “And through reading these novels instead of just passages, they also learn discipline and stamina, and they learn through discussion how to talk about how the book makes them feel. All of these are key skills that form the basis for all other learning.”

Helwig’s campus is also arranging a shuttle service over summer that will take students from the campus to the library so that they are able to continue reading during the summer break. Helwig said he hopes to use his school’s success to try and have two new Title I elementary AISD schools involved in the grant program next year.

The Spine of All Learning

Earlier this year, literacy was highlighted as one of the key focus areas for the Austin Independent School District. By intensifying the district’s focus on literacy education, and devoting more brain power (mental resources and energy) and professional development to this area, AISD hopes to beef up what it is already doing well. 

“Reading is the spine of all learning. It connects everything. In AISD every teacher, regardless of the subject area—math, social studies, science, art or physical education—those teachers can be reading teachers, and we can all create opportunities for strengthening a student’s literacy skills,” said AISD’s Chief Academic Officer Pauline Dow.

Research shows that just one positive experience with reading can turn a student into a reader. If compelling, comprehensible material is available, even the most reluctant reader can develop literacy skills for a lifetime. 

As part of this effort, AISD has formed a Literacy Work Group charged with identifying measurable outcomes, communicating the district’s literacy strategy and monitoring and evaluating the success.

And, since the focus on reading begins even at pre-k, the district is continuing to use local dollars to offer full-day, pre-k programs—despite widespread state budget cuts—because study after study shows providing quality early care for at-risk children can yield a real rate of return of 12 to 16 percent. 

Everyone has a Stake in Student Literacy

The grants to Graham and Blackshear and the Austin Public Branch Libraries were made possible by the organization Connecting Texas Libraries Statewide (CTLS), which serves as the conduit for the funding between the two entities.

The organization’s mission is to bring libraries together and build a cooperative network among libraries, school districts and other organizations that share the same literacy goal.   

“We’re all working to get our children able to read, to be fluent and to be very comfortable in reading because it’s the most fundamental skill they need,” said Pat Tuohy, executive director of CTLS. “Especially in a digital age, you’re not going to be able to do something as simple as update your Facebook or something as complex as program, or perform any technical skills or new manufacturing process needs unless you can read instructions.”

Tuohy said you can teach students how to read, but the skill does not become fluid or automatic until a child reads at a certain level of competency. Like all things, she said, the only way to reach that level of competency is to practice.

“The key is getting our children the materials they want to read so that they’re excited to the point that they want to get to the end of the story and they’re pushing themselves,” she said. “Whether it’s in a school or public libraries, we know that the key to reading is reading for pleasure.”

Show up, Work Hard, Read

Back at Graham Elementary, an example of reading for pleasure is being lived out as Librarian Josefina Rodriguez-Gibbs finishes the story of Miss McKenzie and her farm, and closes her book.

The previous focused attention and silence from the students is interrupted, and now they are clapping to show their thanks and appreciation for the story—and their new friend.

Afterward, Rodriguez-Gibbs discusses the importance of the grant and the relationship being built between her public library and the school. 

“We want them to be life-long readers and to see the library as a resource that’s always there for them,” she said. By connecting the library and the school, two public entities with the same goal are joining forces, making their efforts that much stronger.

Students at Graham are reminded of these efforts when they walk down the hallways. The school’s mission statement, after all, is “Show up, Work Hard and Read.”

Helwig picked the mission statement specifically because it is short and easy for students, parents, and faculty to understand and remember. It defines what the Graham faculty view as the most important skill a student learns and masters during their years in an elementary school.

On this day, he tests it to make sure it is getting through to his students and asks them periodically through the day and at dismissal, “What’s the most important thing you can learn?” as well as, “What do you need to do tonight at home?”

One after the other, they respond: “Reading.”