Finding a school district that doesn’t have a literacy initiative extending beyond the walls of the classroom would likely be quite a challenge these days. And that’s as it should be! Reading is, as the cliché goes, fundamental. It’s a basic academic skill that helps students learn any other skill they will need to develop.
Building a strong, effective literacy initiative takes more than just asking students and community members to read together and planning a party to celebrate success at the end (though the parties are great, too!).
At Garland Independent School District, we’ve found that there are three keys to a successful literacy initiative: establishing clear goals, ensuring equitable access to reading material for every student, and building community partnerships from day one.
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By focusing on those elements, our program has seen amazing results in its first year. While the program is still ongoing, between May 31 and September 1, participants have read more than 109,000 books in more than 784,000 minutes. More than 59,000 students had access to myON in that time and each student has so far spent a whopping 1,326 minutes reading on average.
Establishing clear goals
When you have targets to reach, your initiative is more purposeful, more strategic. When you know what your goal is, it’s easier to see the barriers to achieving it and address them. Without goals, it’s harder to monitor progress or even determine if the completed initiative was a success or needs a little more work before round two.
We started down the path for our summer reading program, the Literacy for Life initiative, when our new superintendent decided to launch a single-focus initiative. We created a list of goals we wanted to achieve. Among the top 10 were four goals focused on raising literacy outcomes across the district. To achieve that, we made our overarching goal to encourage everyone in the community to read.
Ensuring access for every student
For our literacy initiative to get off the ground, we needed to ensure that every student had access to reading materials. This was a bit of a challenge in Garland ISD, because more than 100 languages are spoken in our district and more than 60 percent of our student body is economically disadvantaged. When an initiative goes beyond the district to be truly community-wide, as ours is, the issue of access could become a real stumbling block.
We addressed these barriers by partnering with Renaissance to provide all our students and every citizen access to myON through its Community of Readers model. Through myON, a digital literacy platform, we’ve made nearly 7,000 books available at no cost to everyone who lives in the three cities we serve: Garland, Rowlett, and Sachse.
We’re a 1:1 computing district at the middle and high school levels, so many students have the devices they need. Community members and students can also download books on phones. They can download books anywhere they have internet access, such as school or the library, to read later, so access isn’t a barrier to participation. Regardless of socioeconomic status or the number of books in a student’s home, they all have access to reading material.
Books are available in a variety of languages, and the program can even read out loud to the students using professionally recorded audio, so if a child is struggling or a parent is unavailable to sit and read, kids can still access reading material.
And our numbers thus far reflect that these online books are being read. More than 135,000 books have been accessed, and students have read close to 1 million minutes! Our students are actively engaged with literacy, and the numbers continue to rise.
Community partnerships are often important in education initiatives, but when your goal is to focus the community to achieve a common goal, as ours is, they are absolutely essential. One of our earliest partners was the Garland Community Multicultural Commission. The group was a huge help in bringing other organizations in to collaborate with us early in the process. Getting a community group like that on board helps spread the word to community members who might be interested in participation.
Because Garland ISD serves three different cities, we were also able to bring those cities’ leaders and their libraries into the project for support and to help spread the word. We’ve even had city council members jump in to support our community reading model personally.
Businesses from each of our communities have been eager to get involved, with Kraft Foods donating snacks and backpacks full of supplies to give away during the celebration at the end of the program. Other local businesses are also donating goods to the initiative—but just as importantly, they’re donating time to spend with the students reading and talking about books.
We’re already excited about the future of this initiative and the potential that it could become a part of the culture in these three communities. That hope is realistic because so many different organizations in these towns are already a big part of it.
If I could give a single piece of advice to anyone planning a community literacy initiative, I would tell them to involve community partners as early as possible. It’s hard enough to communicate a message to the stakeholders in your own organization. If you want to go beyond that and get your message out to every corner of your community, you need a lot of soldiers on the ground. Community partners can go a long way—much further than your district alone—toward filling those boots.
In the end, there’s no great mystery to building a successful community reading initiative. Once you’ve decided what your district needs to achieve, the key is finding the right partners and working together to make it happen.