When Gia Bastien, of Towson, was a child growing up in a rural area of Maine, her parents, trying to protect their African American daughter in an overwhelmingly white state, pulled her out of school in the fourth grade.
Bastien, who now lives in Loch Raven Village, said she struggled for years to catch up on what she had missed, especially in reading and literacy skills. She succeeded; she graduated just a few weeks ago from the Community College of Baltimore County and will be attending Morgan State University on a full scholarship in the fall. Despite her success, Bastien said she wants something better for her three sons.
“I don’t want to see my children struggle,” she said. So, for the past three years when school ended, Bastien has taken her children to the Towson library and has them sign up for the Summer Reading Challenge.
“In my household, reading is definitely important,” Bastien said.
The Summer Reading Challenge is a countywide program in which kids can earn prizes by reading books and participating in activities throughout the summer. Conni Strittmatter, youth and family engagement manager for the Baltimore County Public Library system, said the program is designed as something of an academic bridge.
“We believe that we serve a role in the community to help fill in the gap of summer when it comes to learning for the kids in the county,” Strittmatter said. “Our summer reading challenge encourages children to read, experience and to share throughout the summer.”
Children, particularly those from low-income families and minority groups, often experience what some call a “summer slide,” said Aaron Philip Dworkin, the new CEO of the Baltimore-based National Summer Learning Association.
Retired Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander did some of the first research on summer learning loss, following Baltimore students from early school years in the 1980s through adulthood. His team found that by the end of fifth grade, middle-class students often were ahead of grade level in reading comprehension, while more disadvantaged students tended to be years behind.
“We were able to document that almost all the increase in the achievement gap traces to summer learning loss,” Alexander said.
Families with means have learning resources at home and send their children to enriching summer camps and on experiences where they continue learning through the hottest months of the year, Alexander said. Children without that access forget some of what they learned during the school year, and do not learn anything new, leaving them behind their peers when the new school year starts.
Megan Crews, a librarian in the Catonsville branch of the public library system, said reading just six books — of just about any length, and on any topic — can negate that negative effect.
But for some families, the summer reading program is not in lieu of camp; it supplements it. Bastien said her sons, ages 5, 7 and 14, participate in camps, too, but reading offers something different.
“I want them to be able to sit and experience the stillness, not be busy all the time with activities and always going somewhere,” she said.
Bastien said the effort has paid off, especially for her middle child, who she said has seen a huge improvement each year when school starts in the fall. “He’s felt more confident,” she said.
Summer reading is so important to education that the school system promotes the library’s offerings as the school year comes to a close, said Fran Glick, coordinator for library media programs at Baltimore County Public Schools.
The drop in skills for students without learning activities over the summer can be a challenge for teachers, who must work to catch up students in the fall, Glick said. Summer reading programs mitigate drops in literacy by encouraging kids to practice reading.
“Research and experience tells us the only way to get to be a better reader is by reading,” Glick said.
“I think the summer reading program really encourages [my son] to get in that habit of reading,” said Alissa Enders, of White Marsh, whose son is a rising sixth-grader.
Strittmatter said the library’s Summer Reading Challenge is designed to make sure a child’s mind is not idle over the summer by ensuring they are reading something, anything.
“Kids can choose any book they want to read,” Strittmatter said, adding that a primary factor in encouraging a love of reading is letting kids choose books they want to read. Those choices include comics and graphic novels, traditional novels, even magazines and newspapers. “Anything they want to get their hands on and read will help bridge the summer slide for them,” she said.
Bastien said her youngest, who is still learning to read, has been focusing on picture books, while her middle son reads a lot of graphic novels and books about sports icons like Shaquille O’Neal. She said she also gives them lists of books she wants them to read, particularly about black culture.
“My children are mixed, so I want them to know about both cultures,” Bastien said. The reading program gives her children the opportunity to read about aspects of their culture they do not always learn about in school, she said.
The theme of this year’s Summer Reading Challenge is “A Universe of Stories.” Strittmatter said the theme will include space-themed activities.
The summer challenge — and summer programming — at library branches across the county includes a myriad of programming related to the space theme. The Catonsville branch is “super into space and astronomy stuff” and already gearing up for the summer, Crews said.
The branch, on Frederick Road in Catonsville, has an outdoor learning space where kids can tend a garden growing tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and peppers, taking measurements and making other scientific observations throughout the summer.
“We love sneaky math and sneaky science,” Crews said.
The outdoor space allows kids and other visitors to point telescopes at the skies and look for constellations on clear nights, and lets them hunt for bugs and birds during the day.
Science, technology, engineering, arts, and math activities (STEAM) can help keep kids engaged, Crews said. The Summer Reading Challenge allows students and others to document all the different ways they learn over the summer.
“We’ve got the kids, we’ve got the outdoors, it’s a really cool chance to do some hands-on learning,” Crews said.
Children (and adults) can participate in the Summer Reading Challenge one of two ways. They can sign up online using the interactive game board Beanstack. Or, they can come to any library branch and pick up a booklet in person.
Participants win points by filling out their boards or booklets with books they have read and library activities they have participated in. The goal, Strittmatter said, is to reach 20 books and activities total.
The point may be to get kids self-engaged in reading, but that doesn’t mean the library won’t include a carrot. Participants who earn 20 points get to pick out a tote bag or a book to take home and are also entered in a drawing at their branch: Kids up to 10 years old are entered to win space-themed toys like magnetic building blocks or a women of NASA LEGO set.
Children between 11 and 17 can win a $25 Visa gift cart or a card for Amazon, Target or AMC. Adults can also enter into drawings for a $25 Visa gift card.
Enders said her son was not especially into reading when he was younger, until the library one year began offering a toy grabber claw that “he was all about getting.” All of a sudden, her then-rising first-grader was reading 16 books a week. When library staff offered him a second claw prize, he read 16 more.
“Now we have a guy who reads a couple hours a day,” Enders said.
Baltimore County parents have been receiving information about the summer reading program for months, Glick said, adding that Baltimore County Public Schools students can check out books at county libraries without a card.
Bastien said while her younger children love the summer reading program, her eldest, 14, sometimes needs a little push. An AP student at Eastern Technical High, she said her son thinks summer should be a time to “rest and do nothing.”
“That’s not the case for me,” Bastien said. “Or else we’re going to start from square one when it’s time to start school again.”
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Cody Boteler contributed to this article.