On a sunny August evening at Aquila Urban Farm in St. Louis Park, families spread out on blankets, kick up their feet on the curb, perch beneath trees, and enjoy plates of food and brand-new books. During this second night of the week-long St. Louis Park Summer Reading Festival, the energy is abuzz following the dynamic We Love Our Community kickoff event from the night prior.
On the lawn of Aquila Elementary, a wobbly toddler holds her big sister’s hand and embarks on a Story Stroll on a path weaving through the gardens. Others, on their tip toes, ask local St. Louis Park authors, “How did you do it? How did you write a book?”
Dana Strahnson, Youth Services Librarian at St. Louis Park Library, encourages budding readers to pick out a free book that catches their eye, along with Hennepin County Latino Liaison Kimberly Marquez, who greets guests in Spanish. The kids are delighted to each collect their new book, along with a journal, pencils, and stickers.
This joy, warmth, and family togetherness is the vehicle that community partners in St. Louis Park are utilizing to address a pervasive issue: early literacy gaps.
“Wait, I can take the books from the library home? ... Oh my gosh, I don’t have any books in my house, and I just want to read!”
Reducing Disparities in Early Literacy
Teachers and scientists have found two major benchmarks that correlate closely to a child’s chances of success in school and life: kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading level. Developing early literacy supports them both.
However, there’s a significant disparity in how kids are performing in these areas, especially relative to family income, race, and home language. Without intervention and proper attention to these gaps, long-term risks and challenges are predicted for each student.
The library is taking part in this work by building kindergarten readiness year-round. Skills such as writing one’s name, saying the ABCs, and identifying shapes and colors are incorporated into Hennepin County Library Storytimes. Library staff help kids create nametags, point out colors and shapes on book pages, and communicate with the storyteller, prompting lots of curious questions. Still, the library staff is eager to do more to combat the gaps in educational outcomes.
A New Idea Takes Shape
Patrice Howard of St. Louis Park Community Education was inspired when she heard about the success of the Reading Promise Festival in Philadelphia. This festival, powered by the community, targets the early literacy crisis. “Could we do this in St. Louis Park?” the organizers asked.
The answer, they found, was a resounding YES. The festival has become a model of community collaboration, with 21 partners helping organize and execute the first-year efforts. The groups represent a variety of causes, from literacy to urban farming to social work to youth leadership training and more, all with a mission to increase the wellbeing of St. Louis Park. These groups recognize a child’s ability to read is intertwined with so many other outcomes.
“The festival is a chance for all these different organizations to come together and say, ‘we’ve got you!’ And that literacy is attainable and something to be celebrated,” says Dana Strahnson.
Key partners in organizing the summer spectacular include the Hennepin County Library, Children First, St. Louis Park Community Education, Seeds Feeds, Parktacular, and Perspectives.
“I can’t pick up and move my library,” says Dana, “but what we can do is try our very best to bring library resources to where people are. That’s my goal and the goal of this festival.”
Meeting the Community Where They Are
The festival serves people who live in the areas of greatest income and employment disparity. Events are organized to piggyback on already vibrant programs in these areas, such as the Seeds Feeds weekly community meal and Perspective’s Basketball in the Park. Determined to make this inaugural effort a success, the team went door to door to invite neighbors to attend.
Depending on where you live and your access to transportation, getting to the library isn’t always possible. “I can’t pick up and move my library,” says Dana, “but what we can do is try our very best to bring library resources to where people are. That’s my goal and the goal of this festival.”
The Gift of Story
The lineup included events such as Turning the Page of Peace Art Walk, Read with Rotary, Teddy Bear Band Rock & Read, and Name Your Feelings Through Art. Book distribution was the highlight of the entire week-long festival and a feature of every event. Books were provided in Spanish, English, Dari, and Pashto to engage and welcome a wide variety of readers. In total, the library distributed more than 200 giveaway books thanks to Friends like you!
“There is a real need to get books into patrons’ homes”, says Dana, who shared a recent conversation she had with a young girl on a group trip to the library. “Wait, I can take the books from the library home?” the girl asked. When Dana assured her that she could, and that the books were free to borrow, the girl replied, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have any books in my house, and I just want to read!”
It was inspiring to see such a wonderful turnout at this year’s inaugural festival. Already on the first night of the festival, kids and parents alike were asking questions about the plans for next year.