SILER CITY — Dozens of children lined up before a big, blue bus parked along the curb just outside Virginia Cross Elementary School. At first glance, the bus might have been mistaken for an ice cream truck, but the kids didn’t line up for sundaes.
Instead, they lined up for books.
Inside the bus, or the Bookmobile as it’s called, lives a mobile library stocked with thousands of books for a variety of ages — from easy pre-K readers and chapter books to graphic novels, and even a few shelves of bilingual books. Some are free, but most are school library books.
It’s all part of a decade-long effort that two Chatham elementary schools — Siler City Elementary and Virginia Cross — have undertaken to provide books to low-income students who may not otherwise have access during the summer break from school. While some students may lack transportation to public libraries, others may live with parents who can’t provide the ID many public libraries require in return for library cards.
“It was just a way to get books in hands in summer, and (to) make sure that the summer reading slide did not happen, that we had kids reading during the summer,” said SCE media specialist Beth Kalb, who’s been involved in running the Bookmobile since she first joined the school system four years ago.
At each bus stop, like one on a recent Tuesday, staff allow several children to enter the Bookmobile at a time. Once inside, they’ll browse through the shelves or flip through bins and pick out their favorites. Then they’ll take their chosen few up — usually at least two or three — to the counter at the front of the bus, where a media specialist will process them.
On this day, that media specialist was Kalb — but on a different day, it might have been Virginia Cross Elementary’s Lindsay Shore-Wright.
“There you go, honeybun,” Kalb told a student that day on her way out with a set of newly checked out books. “Read them. Love them.”
Both schools share the Bookmobile; one side houses SCE’s library books while the other contains VCE’s collection. That’s why each school takes turns driving the bus around Siler City. Kalb and SCE staff drive it around on Tuesdays, while VCE staff, plus Communities In Schools’ Jazmin Mendoza Sosa, take the Bookmobile out every other Wednesday.
From 1 to 5 p.m., SCE’s Bookmobile makes five stops — the SCE and VCE parking lots, Cateland Place, Santa Fe Circle and Fontana Circle. Though now that summer school’s over, Kalb said the Bookmobile will swap out the VCE parking lot for the Piggly Wiggly Park starting this week.
VCE’s Bookmobile route makes eight stops — including at Love’s Creek Mobile Home Park, Hampton Village and Justice Mobile Home Park.
“We focus only on VCE neighborhoods or stops where our VCE students live,” said Mendoza Sosa, who up until recently worked as a student support specialist at VCE. “ … A lot of the time, most of the kids came from neighborhoods such as Love’s Creek and Justice. Those are the biggest neighborhoods we have in attendance — and Washington Park is also another one.”
Only children with student accounts may check out books, she said, but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive to those students. Each school has a pile of free books that visiting children may keep. Pre-K students at VCE may also check out books since they have their own student library accounts.
“We had students who would often be at a babysitter’s house who wouldn’t live in Siler City or just were there for the summer, and through the Bookmobile, they also could get free books,” Mendoza Sosa said. “Then we also had access to books for, like, toddlers and those kids who are not in the school age or registered in the school system, so they could also get free books.”
According to Kalb, SCE’s pile of free books is especially large this year. Last winter, SCE overhauled its literacy closet, and now, they’re looking to get rid of thousands of “excess books.”
“And so, I thought the best place to say, ‘Hey, kids, you want a lot of books?’ would be the Bookmobile,” she said, adding, “So just this summer, really, they can take a gigantic bag of books and they’re theirs to keep forever.”
Children who don’t return their books on time won’t face any sort of punishment, Kalb and Mendoza Sosa both say.
“Normally, kids would come in, check out a book, return it the next week and then check out another book,” Kalb said. “And I know that both Lindsay and I are not the kind of librarians who are like, ‘You didn’t return your book. You don’t get another one.’ The ultimate goal is as many books in hands and kids reading over the summer.”
This summer, VCE’s Bookmobile started on June 16, while SCE’s began on July 13. Both routes finish next week on Aug. 10 and 11. It’s the first time the Bookmobile has ridden since 2019, thanks to COVID-19.
“Because of COVID, we had to stop for a year, so that was 2020,” Mendoza Sosa said, adding with a laugh, “I’m thinking it’s like two years, but no. Long time.”
Virginia Cross’ Bookmobile traces all the way back to the summer of 2010, according to VCE media specialist, Lindsay Shore-Wright. A group of school staff, including Shore-Wright, had identified a gap — and naturally, they resolved to fill it in.
“We had noticed that students were not accessing books in the summer,” she told the News + Record. “We had tried promoting the public library and having the school library open during the summer. Transportation was a huge issue for families, so neither of these options were working very well. Finally, we decided to take books to families.”
That summer, Shore-Wright, some “concerned teachers,” and instructional assistants began loading their cars with books, taking them out into the community and lending them to children who wouldn’t have access otherwise. They alternated cars, loading each with boxes of books and then unloading them all at every stop.
At the time, Shore-Wright recalled, she was just “a support person.” Other teachers took on much of the work. Today, she’s the librarian on board.
“The first few years we called it the PRIDE Ride because our VCE mascot is the lion cub and we said we were a pride of lions,” she said. “Over the years we have learned to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible, so we just call it the VCE Bookmobile.”
But school staff didn’t have to use their own cars for long: once they demonstrated the community’s need for a Bookmobile, the county provided them “an old maintenance van,” Shore-Wright said. After a few more years, the Bookmobile eventually found a new — and permanent — home in the big, blue vehicle both schools share today.
“I’ve heard teachers multiple times be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this van is so much better,’” Kalb said. “Like, it’s so much better. We don’t have to unpack books anymore.”
But a bigger and better bus isn’t the only milestone in the Bookmobile’s history. Thanks to COVID, this summer’s Bookmobile has operated differently than in years past — and not just because adults have to mask up.
“Before COVID, both schools would do it every week,” said Mendoza Sosa, who’s been helping operate the VCE Bookmobile since 2017. “Now because of COVID, we alternate the weeks — one yes, one no.”
Prior to COVID, the Bookmobile also partnered with other organizations to provide a little something extra. Science or art camp organizers, for example, accompanied them a few years ago to encourage kids to sign up for summer camps, according to Kalb, and the school system’s child nutrition program provided snacks.
“It’s usually something as easy as Cheez-Its or Teddy Grahams or something that they can kind of take with them,” Kalb said. “It’s nothing super big, but it’s good, and some of our students struggle with food insecurity, so one extra snack a day is usually a helpful thing.”
The Bookmobile’s still providing snacks this summer, she said, just not in partnership with the school system.
SCE’s Bookmobile also changed its schedule from mornings to afternoons to accommodate summer school students — and that, Kalb said, has made a world of difference, even during a pandemic.
“I had — which was amazing — about 20 at each stop, which honestly is, like, gangbusters for us,” Kalb said, referring to her first Bookmobile trip on July 13. She added: “So about 120 on the first day, and I was super proud of that. … In the summer, I would only say we’d get about half that.”
But for VCE, Mendoza Sosa said she thinks the changes have depressed turnout. Before their COVID-induced service changes, they averaged about 135 kids per week, with as many as 190, according to Shore-Wright. Now, they’re averaging about 80.
“Most of the kids we have served so far this summer are at summer school at VCE,” Shore-Wright said. “Attendance at our neighborhood stops is way down.”
“It has to be COVID,” Mendoza Sosa added, “and it has to be that we’re only running bi-monthly instead of every week, and because of COVID, a lot of changes have happened within our neighborhoods. … I’m sad to not see as many kids come into the Bookmobile.”
But for Mendoza Sosa, this summer’s depressed turnout couldn’t ever dampen the Bookmobile’s overall impact.
It’s an important resource, she said, not only for students, but their parents as well. Students receive access to books and build relationships with school staff while parents — especially Spanish speakers — can find answers to any and all school-related questions.
“The bus driver and the media specialists, sometimes they did the best they could to answer questions, but they really felt that it was needed to have a bilingual person on the Bookmobile,” Mendoza Sosa said. “So that’s how I started. As Communities In Schools and as someone who was a student support specialist, I really felt the Bookmobile was able to reach kids who I wouldn’t be able to access during the summer and that to continue building relationships.”
From the Bookmobile, she would answer parents’ questions about school registration, school supplies, open house — anything.
“They know that if they go to the Bookmobile, there’s someone who might be able to answer their questions or they have someone who will provide them the information about where to get that information,” she said. “ … It took me a whole Bookmobile summer to get a parent to actually visit it and feel comfortable coming in. She didn’t feel like she could. So it was building that relationship with that parent and empowering her to, like, ‘You can open books with your kids, and that would be something you can do.’”
The Bookmobile, she added, was also what inspired her to co-create the first Hispanic 4-H club with Shore-Wright. While speaking to media specialists and kids who came on board, she repeatedly heard kids say, “We don’t have activities to learn.”
“There were no enrichment activities that parents and kids could do together,” Mendoza Sosa said, adding, “Through the Bookmobile we saw the need for enrichment opportunities for kids that were free and that were family orientated.”
The Bookmobile’s also a great way to fight summer learning loss and reading gaps, said Jaime Detzi, Chatham Education Foundation’s executive director. CEF has been providing funding and support to the Bookmobile since 2018.
“We get funding from the Women of Fearrington,” Detzi told the News + Record. “Pretty much every year they’ve been sponsoring the Bookmobile, so $3,000 every year, and then we take those funds and split them between VCE and Siler City, and use them for books and incentives.”
Low-income students can lose close to two years of learning over the summers by the time they reach 5th grade, she said, for various reasons, including lack of access to books or enrichment activities.
“What I love about (the Bookmobile) is that it goes and meets students where they are, and gives them access to literacy resources that they may or may not have had otherwise,” Detzi said. “Statistics show that two-thirds of low income families have few if any books in their homes, so the ability to target neighborhoods and get in there and actually give kids books that are engaging, that they want to read during the summer, helps those kids keep up with their more affluent peers.”
But besides filling in gaps or serving underserved students and families, the Bookmobile also holds an even simpler attraction: Both participating school staff and students just love it.
“I love seeing kids and I love talking to them,” Kalb said. “It’s nice to see students again. It’s nice to see them, and they get so excited. It’s almost like they forget your face over the summer. They’re like, ‘What? You’re here again?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m here again. I’ll always be back.’”
That’s what Shore-Wright enjoys, too.
“Some of the kids are so excited to see us pull into their neighborhood. They bring their little brothers and sisters, their puppies and kittens,” she said. “We’ve even had a pet chicken! It’s another way that I show our students that I care about them and (that) they deserve to have books they want to read all the time, even in the summer.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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