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With the summer break in full swing for students in Forest Park’s public schools, many children won’t receive any formal instruction until they return to the classroom in the fall. Though the break my be well deserved, literacy experts caution that a brain drain often occurs between school years that can set a child’s progress back by as much as several months.

But a cooperative effort between District 91 and the Forest Park Public Library, now in its fledgling stages, could help students retain some of that knowledge.

Educators, reading experts and librarians say summer reading is vital to combat what is called summer reading loss. Gains in proficiency and language skills picked up during the course of the school year can be lost during the summer months if children aren’t reading regularly, according to educators. Often, the biggest setbacks occur among those students who can least afford it.

Anna Tines is a literacy specialist for the Chicago Public Schools and her 10-year-old son Jesse is a first-time participant in the library’s program. According to Tines, the key to most any reading program is to keep the kids interested.

“The thing about reading is that you’re not going to get better unless you practice,” Tines said.

Jesse has been much more willing to read on his own this summer, said Tines, perhaps due in part to the program’s incentives. While riding in the car with his mother, Jesse will pick up a book if for only a few minutes to help pass the time.

“He does it on his own,” Tines said. “Before, we had to make him read. It just never happened before.”

Studies show that students from lower income families lose the most in terms of proficiency over the over the summer if they’re not reading on a regular basis. Students from middle class homes are generally more likely to show modest improvements in their reading skills at the end of the summer, according to researchers, perhaps because there tend to be more books in middle-income homes and neighborhoods than in low-income environs.

District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo said the district currently has no way to measure gains and losses in reading proficiency over the summer. However, in conjunction with a revised reading curriculum, the public schools are set to begin using a new testing strategy that should give teachers a better understanding of how kids are progressing during the summer months.

“From this point on I’ll have that data for you because we’ll use it in all grades in every building,” Cavallo said. “In the past we were not giving a universal assessment.”

The library is beginning to work more closely with the schools to promote reading and to help address the achievement gap between black and white students in District 91. A member of the library’s youth services department sits on the public school’s subcommittee for studying the achievement gap.

The library’s program seeks to provide incentives so that children will read for at least 15 minutes each day. The strategy of getting kids to read for only a few minutes at a time is new to this summer’s program, according to Susan Kunkle, the library’s youth services outreach librarian. In previous years the program measured success by the total number of books read, however, only 62 of the 195 participants in 2007 finished the program.

“I think a big step in the right direction is to get into the habit of regular reading,” Kunkle said.

Kids in the program keep a reading log that is confirmed by their parents. If they have read for at least 15 minutes on all seven days in a week, they can select a coupon at the library that can be redeemed for things like movie tickets, ice cream, pool passes and other rewards. The child who reads the most over the summer will receive a new bicycle. The top 50 readers will be invited to a bowling and pizza party at Circle Lanes.

“I think the program is a great incentive,” Debbie Fedrigon, whose daughter Kara participates in the program, said. Kara is an enthusiastic reader, according to her mother, who regularly exceeds the 15 minute per day requirement.

“Our big goal for the summer was to concentrate on having a higher finishing rate,” Kunkle said. “If you go by the number of books, it’s slanted toward the kids who are already strong readers.”

But thus far the relationship between the school and the library has focused primarily on promoting various programs. While it’s a start, there is as of yet little cooperation in targeted strategies or information sharing.

Compared to 2007, there are about 90 additional children in the library’s summer reading program. However, said Kunkle, her office does not track which schools those students are coming from or their socioeconomic backgrounds. Such information could be pivotal for District 91 in assessing whether the kids who stand to benefit from a summer reading program are taking advantage.

“The only coordination that we do is to provide the library an opportunity to talk to our students about the program,” Forest Park Middle School Librarian Cheryl Bussert said.

But with the building blocks of a potentially fulfilling partnership in place, officials for both the library and the public schools see plenty of opportunities to dovetail. Early intervention, for example, is a key in closing the achievement gap and improving reading skills, according to Cavallo and public librarians.

“The earlier we start teaching them the better,” Cavallo said. “Some kids come to us without the benefit of parents reading to them. Our minority students tend to start school with about one-third of the vocabulary of their counterparts. We have to intervene early and often to get them back on track.”

That’s one reason the library started the infants and toddler reading program, which is new this year. The main summer program, called Catch the Reading Bug, is for kids age 4 to 12. A second program exists for toddlers and infants, and in that program the tots are read to while parents are shown how to work with their children and lay a foundation for literacy. Eighteen families have signed up for the program this year, said Kunkle.

A more advanced program also targets teens.

“We are happy to work with the parents and work with the kids to find things that they’ll really enjoy reading,” Kunkle said. “Get the kids reading something they will really enjoy and they will carry it on.”