Inside the Whitnel Elementary School media center, it smells like books.
You know the smell. Scientists say that musty library scent is just cellulose breaking down, but to generations of American schoolchildren, it smells like words on paper – it smells like learning.
But some Whitnel students might go all summer without breathing in that smell – or opening a book at all. And they forget things they had learned. It’s called “summer loss,” and it drags kids behind when school opens again in August.
“A lot of kids forget during the summer,” said Annamarie Stuckey, the school’s media coordinator. “They’re off from school, and they’re off. And you’re not really off – you should be reading all the time.”
So here in her corner office in the media center – not removed from the scent of all that crumbling cellulose – Stuckey is drafting her battle plan.
The centerpiece is Give Five Read Five – Whitnel’s play on a statewide campaign being trumpeted by state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson.
Media coordinators around the state – and around the county, at each of Caldwell’s elementary schools – are placing boxes in key locations and asking community members to donate new or gently used books to their schools.
The goal is to send each student home with five books. It’s all based on a study published by James Kim at Harvard that showed that reading five books over the summer can help curb summer loss.
The problem is particularly acute at Whitnel – which is situated in a high-poverty area and has one of the highest free and reduced lunch rates in the county.
Low-income families may struggle even more to get their children reading during the summer, Stuckey said.
“It’s the same as anything else,” she said. “If you’re trying to buy food versus books, what are you going to buy?”
But that summer gap makes students fall behind. By the time school starts back, students who don’t read over the summer are as far as two-and-a-half years behind, Kim’s study found.
“Students with strong reading skills are more likely to remain in school and graduate prepared for higher education and the workplace,” said Atkinson, the state superintendent. “That is why it is frustrating and heartbreaking to see students lose ground in reading because they fail to pick up a book during summer vacation.”
At Whitnel, sending each student home with five books is no small task. With 400-some students, they’ll need to gather at least 2,000 books.
But Stuckey is determined.
Throughout the year, she does whatever she can to get a book in kids’ hands. Volunteers – “everyone from the superintendent to firemen,” she said – come in to read to students.
And this year, Whitnel is trying to keep its media center open over the summer. That’s something the school hasn’t done in recent years, but it’s a particularly long break – three months and two days – and Stuckey thinks it’s too long to go without access to new books.
Teachers, at Whitnel as well as elementary schools across the county, spend the beginning of each semester reviewing basic literacy in addition to skills from the year before.
“It doesn’t take them long to gain it back, per se,” Stuckey said. “But if you didn’t have to do as much review work, you could start with new stuff and not have to regain the ground you already had.”