As Casey discussed in the last segment, the characteristics of effective library services for Black youth discussed in the last segment are designed to be flexible and easily adapted to your unique library community. In this segment, we’ll share one example of a school library that is putting these characteristics into action and making a difference in the lives of students and their families.
Northside Elementary School opened in 2013 and is located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Like other schools in Chapel Hill, Northside’s reading achievement data show a large achievement gap when proficiency scores are broken down by race. In the 2014-2015 school year, 90.6% of White students scored at the proficiency level or higher on state end-of-grade reading tests, compared to 48.4% of Hispanic students and just 28.1% of African American students.
Northside’s librarian, Kathryn Cole, has worked at the school since before it opened and has built the library program from the ground up, always keeping the unique strengths and needs of her students in mind. The student population at Northside is diverse: about 44% White, 23% Black, 14% Hispanic, and 15% Asian, including many Karen students from Burma. The diversity of the students is reflected in the library space. A quote from President Barack Obama about the power of libraries is painted on one large wall. On the day we visited, a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction texts featuring people of color were prominently displayed throughout the library and breakdancing-themed student artwork lined the hallway into the library.
The library space is welcoming and warm. A large sign at the entrance reads: “When you enter this library, you are scientists. You are explorers. You are important. You are loved. You are respected. You are a friend. You are the reason we are here!” Hanging just inside the entrance is a large, colorful banner that reads “Welcome to your library!” Colorful furniture, stuffed animals, and bean bag chairs invite students to feel comfortable and safe in the space.
To help address the reading achievement gap, Kathryn knew that she needed to work on combatting the “summer slide.” Although Chapel Hill’s public library does offer a summer reading program, transportation to the library is a challenge for many Northside students and their families, particularly the students of color. However, many of Northside’s students of color live within easy walking distance of the school. So Kathryn set out to find a way to keep the Northside Library open during the summer—not just for book checkout, but for an engaging array of library programs as well.
One major hurdle to her plans was funding. Keeping the library open during the summer would require money to pay for staffing as well as programming materials. Fortunately, Kathryn found a local donor who was as committed to the idea as she was and who contributed the funds necessary to make it a reality. Kathryn also secured the support of her school administration, and reached out to the Boys and Girls Club, who would already be leading programs in the school building over the summer, to see how they might work together to get the students most in need of summer services into the library. She also partnered with the Chapel Hill Public Library to make Northside a satellite location for the public library’s summer reading program, so that students visiting Northside could also receive the benefits of the public library’s more established program. And Kathryn herself committed to staffing the library during its summer hours, which were Tuesday through Thursday from 10am to 2pm.
Kathryn advertised the program with flyers, and at the school’s Books on Break event, which allowed the youth at Northside who are on free- and reduced-lunch plans to take home 10 books of their choosing.
Summer programs at Northside combined academics with student interests, and with fun! A local jump rope team, the Bouncing Bulldogs, came to the library to perform, after which students made their own jump ropes out of straws and string in the library’s makerspace. A hip-hop dancer, Josh Weaver, led a workshop for students, who then created breakdancing-themed artwork. Athletes from UNC Chapel Hill came weekly to read stories. Weekly design challenges tasked students with building paper airplanes, marshmallow catapults, and bubble wands, and older students worked with Makerspace technology including electronic circuit kits and coding robots.
The library’s programs were designed with Northside students in mind, however, their families were also welcome to attend. On the day we visited, a couple of middle school students were attending the design challenge program with their younger siblings. Parents attended several of the programs, sometimes bringing toddlers with them.
Kathryn collected data about the program throughout the summer, and also engaged in holistic reflection on the program’s successes and hiccups. For example, she shared with us that the prizes she secured as reading incentives did not seem to motivate her students to check out books or document their reading (which doesn’t necessarily mean they were not reading, just that they were not motivated to participate in an incentive-based reading program). She is already thinking about alternative ways to strengthen the literacy components of the program for next summer.
Northside’s summer program embodies many of the characteristics of effective library services for African American youth identified in the last segment. The library space is welcoming, engaging, and inclusive. Relevant and meaningful resources are prominently displayed throughout the library. The programming and instruction offered is culturally relevant, fosters community, collaboratively developed, and interactive. The administrators at Northside and at the Chapel Hill Public Library were committed to the program and were willing to work collaboratively to make it a reality. And finally, Kathryn herself was deeply committed to the program, proactive in its development, and accountable for its successes and shortcomings.
Your library may or may not be similar to Northside’s. In our book, we highlight eight additional examples of libraries that are putting the characteristics of effective service for African American youth into practice, and changing the lives of the youth they serve in the process. In the final segment of this workshop session, we’ll share some concrete ideas for how you might begin assessing and improving your own work with Black youth.