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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER Breetany Garcia, 6, listens as Janelle Miller reads Sneezy the Snowman last month at the Montecito Springs apartment complex in Springdale. Miller and instructional assistant Pam Sweeney brought the mobile library of Sonora Elementary School to the area where many of the school's students live.

Breetany Garcia came running out of her ground floor Springdale apartment, her black hair flowing behind her, her snaggle-tooth smile beaming from across a grassy lawn.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER Amy Peraza, 8, chooses a book during the mobile library’s stop at the playground on Commons Avenue in Springdale. Sonora Elementary School — and other schools throughout Northwest Arkansas — started the program to keep students reading during the summer months. Research has shown if students don’t practice their learning, they will lose it.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER Alyssa John, a rising second-grader at Sonora Elementary, heads for home with her book selections and snacks from the school’s mobile library stopped in The Commons neighborhood. Many of the school’s students have no access the public library for books in the summer, so the school takes books to them.

Janelle Miller, the school counselor at Sonora Elementary School, was greeted with a big hug.

Next, Garcia's cousin, Melanie Garcia, wearing a pink-striped bathing suit, came tentatively.

Miller and Pam Sweeney, an instructional assistant for the school's special education classrooms, manned the Sonora mobile library one Tuesday evening last month. The van carried books for all elementary reading levels to apartment complexes and neighborhoods where Sonora students live.

Children are allowed to check out two books and exchange them for others on the mobile library's return trip.

Brettany, who will start first grade in the fall, chose I Love Shadow and an I Spy book. Melanie, who will join the school's pre-kindergarten program, chose There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and Sneezy the Snowman.

Fernando Bautista then came to the library, but he wasn't much interested in the read-aloud. He wanted to chose books on the fifth-grade level that he would enjoy reading by himself. He picked four, but settled on two.

"I picked a fiction and a nonfiction," he said, showing a Flat Stanley book and a biography of former President Barak Obama. He said he enjoys Flat Stanley and chose the book on Obama because "pretty much, I don't know anything about him."

SUMMER SLIDE

Students at Sonora Elementary School are asked to read 12 books on their reading levels during the summer months when they are not in school, said Principal Regina Stewman.

Research has shown students often experience a regression of their learning over the summer months, Stewman reported. "If they are not practicing as they're learning, they can actually lose some of that learning. They must regain it after school begins again and aren't able to move on to new learning until they have regained it."

Tracking data on her own students during the first years of the mobile library, Stewman said the students who used the mobile library did show less summer regression than the students who didn't. "It's not scientific, but it was the kids who came to the mobile library who consistently had less or limited regression," she said.

"Kids need to read, read, read," agreed Justin Swope, principal of Lee Elementary School in Springdale, which operates its own mobile library. "What you see is, the kids who are repeatedly there are better readers."

Both schools started their mobile library seasons with rallies at the end of the year to get students excited about reading.

En route and in a hurry to get his daughter to gymnastics lessons, Scott Conrad stopped the car when he saw the Sonora mobile library in his neighborhood. Their schedule was tight, but Kaylee Conrad, a third-grader, jumped out in her leotard and chose Magic School Bus and the Giant Gem. "It's fun to read and it teaches you about stuff," she said of the book.

"I like the program," Conrad said. "She's been part of it ever since kindergarten. It's great to see them keeping active and keeping up with their academics. She reads to us nearly every night before she goes to bed."

CHALLENGES

In another neighborhood, three children waited outside their house, knowing the mobile library was coming that day.

As the van pulled by, Brandon Peraza, a fifth-grader, Amy Peraza, a third-grader, and David Peraza, a third-grader, held out their books, asking for more. Miller told the kids to tell their mother where they were going and meet the teachers at the playground. "We were waiting all that time," Amy said.

The kids jumped in their bicycles and beat the library to the playground.

Next came Simena Perez, a first-grader with a big smile on her face. She left with her little arms full of Clifford the Big Red Dog and ran back down the street toward home.

"We have lots of challenges in our attendance zone," Miller said, with a 30-minute drive required to get some students from their houses in rural areas to school. And with many parents working, students just don't have the opportunity to use the public library to get books for summer reading.

Lee Elementary is closer to the library, but the population is similar to that of Sonora's in terms of poverty levels and non-English-speaking homes.

So the Sonora and Lee mobile libraries visit areas in which their students bodies are concentrated. For others, Stewman and Miller continue to brainstorm for a solution. But students and parents also are invited to come to the school to choose books.

"We have 700 kids," Stewman said. "Sadly, it doesn't provide all our children with books."

Swope said his school's program serves about 100 kids.

"We have parents who will go where we are," Miller said. "They will find us."

Thousands of books for the mobile libraries have been purchased through grant money. Lee officials took the money to a local used book store, where books cost just $1, to restock the library. Books that needed to be "retired" were given to students, Swope said.

Donations brought Sonora its small SUV and the automobile's sign for student safety. Swope inherited his school's mobile library from Stewman, but he wanted bigger and better. So he accessed a used school bus from the district, and donations provided for bookshelves and even air conditioning, he said.

Other schools throughout Northwest Arkansas operate similar mobile libraries.

Students do return most of the books, even if not to the mobile library, the principals reported. Some students return books and teachers find others in backpacks as the school year begins, Stewman said. And some families move away but return the books via mail.

"They are very thoughtful, and we haven't had a huge loss," she said.

"I say I'd rather lose a book than a reader," she continued. "If they keep it, and it's on a shelf, they might pick it up and read it again, or a younger sibling might read it. Then that book is serving its purpose."

RELATIONSHIPS

Miller drove the mobile library to the apartment complex swimming pool, announcing through the SUV's sound system where the library was going. A number of Sonora students were cool in the pool and not really interested in reading at the moment.

"C'mon, Malachi. Come get some books and a snack pack. You can go back and swim," Miller called to a student.

Soon, kids came racing out of the pool. Dripping wet, they quickly picked out books and bags of snacks. Just as quickly, they raced back to the pool after putting their books on chairs away from the water.

"At least they're smart enough to put them someplace they won't get wet," Sweeney said, explaining that lessons on how to treat a book were part of the mobile library's summer kickoff.

"It's more than just the book," Stewman said about the mobile library. "It gives us a chance to check on our kids."

Stewman and Miller worked at Lee Elementary prior to their tenures at Sonora. Stewman told of a little girl who was missing from the regular library run, so teachers asked where she was. They learned she had been bitten by a snake. The teachers visited the home and saw her leg swelling.

Working through the school's resources, Stewman and Miller arranged medical care for the girl, explained the process for filling a prescription to her parents and even the importance of taking the medicine as directed. "It was an ESL family," Stewman said. "And we were able to provide some parenting skills."

"It's a cohesive relationship," Stewman continued. "We don't want the kids to think we have forgotten them. We meet our kids with a friendly face, which they will see when they return to school. We might meet children and get them enrolled in kindergarten or pre-K, if their parents haven't done that. And we will know if a kid moves in, or suddenly moves away and we can find out why and if everything is OK."

The Samaritan House provides "snack packs" weekly during the school year for students living with food insecurity to take home to eat over the weekend. The program continues through the summer, and these schools distribute these snack packs through their mobile library programs.

TEACHABLE MOMENT

Miller sat on the grass of the apartment complex's playground and opened one of Melanie's choices and began reading aloud. "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly ...

"What do you think about that," Miller asked the girls. Melanie sat motionless with rapt attention, but Brettany bore an expression of shock.

Miller read on. "What do bag and brag do," she asked, then pointed out the words rhyme, one of the ways student learn to decipher words they don't know. An adult reading aloud and sharing thoughts while reading the book also helps students' comprehension skills.

Next, Milller picked up Sneezy the Snowman. "What do you think is going to happen," she asked before reading.

Brettany, dressed to beat the summer's heat with bare feet and brightly colored shorts and shirt, replied, "I think he's going to melt!"

NAN Our Town on 07/06/2017

Print Headline: Checking out, checking up

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