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Using books to fill the gap

The Baltimore Sun

Axxam and Mustafa Sassy are headed to Germany and Egypt on vacation this month with a bag full of books. The two middle schoolers received 34 of them at a summer book fair at their school, Arundel Middle.

Mustafa, 12, who plays soccer, already started reading Keeper by Mal Peet, a story about a goalie. Axxam, 10, dug into The Revenge of the Shadow King by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis, about four kids who discover that the goblins and fairies featured in their card game are appearing in their Minnesota town.

"I think it's really kind of fascinating what another world can be," Axxam said.

The boys took part in a series of summer book fairs designed to cultivate the reading skills of middle school students. Anne Arundel County Public Schools and Scholastic Books sponsored the book fairs, which started June 16 and end July 16.

Susan Sassy, the boys' mother, couldn't be happier about the fairs. She takes her children to the library, but they can't find some of the more popular titles there.

Sassy said she likes the fact that her sons had to commit to read at least five books and write about them in a journal. In the fall, students will have to share part of their journals in a book club at school.

"I'm glad there's follow-up," Sassy said.

Arundel Middle School drew 35 other students to its fair on June 25 and 26. Principal Shawn Ashworth said students who read similar books will be able to team up and create joint presentations.

"I hope that it encourages free reading," said Ashworth, who added that teachers struggle when they have to pick books for students. "The reading materials don't always conform with what kids want to be reading."

Buffy Jordan, a teacher specialist, will track how well the students perform on the county's annual standardized language arts test. She wants to see if students maintain and improve their reading skills. If they do, she hopes she can get donations or a grant to continue the program next year. Because of budget cuts, the county won't be able to fund the $12,000 pilot program next year.

"Kids drop when they don't do anything [over the summer]," said Jordan, who works in the school system's office of middle school reading and language arts. "This is to combat that."

Middle school reading proficiency is a concern nationwide. The National Endowment for the Arts released a report in November that showed improvement in reading skills among children at the elementary school level, but a decline as students entered their teenage years. Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, according to the report.

The county's book fair started on a small scale last year. It was offered at six schools to students who were admitted into the Summer Bridge program, which prepares rising sixth-graders for the transition to middle school.

The book fair worked so well that Anne Arundel County schools teamed up with Scholastic to host a series of them this summer. School officials expanded the program to all students attending 12 of the 19 middle schools in the county.

Each school was allotted $1,000. Students could get up to $20 worth of free books each, but they could pick out more or less, depending on the number of students who showed up at each school. Scholastic donated a free book for each one bought.

In the fall, Jordan will meet with the children twice at their individual schools for mini book clubs. Jordan plans to create a slide presentation for teachers to share what titles the students liked and what they discussed about the books.

More than 60 children came to the first book fair held at Corkran Middle School from June 16 to 17. Principal Debbie Montgomery sent home information with students before school ended and then sent two reminder calls through the county's Connect-Ed automated system. The system sends out recorded phone messages to parents about school events.

Montgomery also added evening hours to the fair on the second day to accommodate working parents. She recalled one mother objecting when her son picked out four books on skateboarding. His mother ultimately let him go home with his choices, a move that Montgomery applauded.

"If I can get him to look at four books ... that's a key to success," she said.

Southern Middle School and Old Mill Middle North and South have held fairs in the past two weeks. Other fairs are scheduled for Annapolis, Bates, Brooklyn Park, George Fox, Lindale, Marley and Meade middle schools.

Old Mill Middle School South and North were more sparsely attended - 13 children showed up at their book fairs Monday and Tuesday - because they limited their outreach. Old Mill South targeted a sampling of kids who might benefit from extra reading, while Old Mill North contacted only last year's graduates of its Summer Bridge program. Both principals say they might open the program to all of their students if the program is extended next year.

Sharnette Straker, who teaches eighth grade at Old Mill North, brought her 7-year-old son Sean Straker-Young to get books. She taught the Summer Bridge program last year and said those kids seemed to really enjoy the fair.

"I saw improvement in children's reading skills, their inquisitiveness," Straker said. "If we make [reading] exciting, they'll dig into it on their own."

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