As beats boomed from a nearby speaker and basketballs rattled around the rims at Jerry Burrell Park in Schenectady on Sunday, Amar Waring proudly held up a copy of a book in the “Skylanders” series.
Waring, who will start first grade at Martin Luther King Elementary School in September, had just checked the book out of a mobile library a few steps away.
“I think this program helps him have something to read in the summer,” Amar’s sister Enid said, noting access to new books is difficult for students in non-school months.
To address that issue and shift the conversation surrounding summer reading, a team of staff members in the Schenectady School District launched Project Lit. As part of the initiative, a mobile library made five stops this summer around Schenectady, with the final scheduled appearance taking place Sunday at Jerry Burrell Park.
Project Lit, and the accompanying hashtag #SchenectadyReads, was conceived by a trio of school district staff members who sought to change the way kids perceive summer reading. Many typically hear the phrase and view it as a homework assignment, but the new effort seeks to make it more mainstream, organizers said.
The name itself is a play off “lit” in the literacy sense, and in the slang sense meaning fun or exciting.
“The summer slide is real,” said Kristina Graves, librarian at Mont Pleasant Middle School. “To avoid that, you need to read. Even if kids come back reading just one extra book over the summer.”
Participants sign up to check out a book from a mobile library by listing their name, grade and school they attend. Since it’s the first year of the program, it’s mostly geared toward middle schoolers, Graves said.
Once students have a book, they’re encouraged to communicate with staff and other kids on social media, particularly Snapchat. For example, students will take a Snapchat of a page out of the book they’re reading, and add emojis and other stickers to display how they feel while reading.
“It’s important for kids to see themselves in the books they read,” said Victoria Abdulla, one of the organizers of Project Lit, noting that the selected choices are intentional and include a diversity of authors, characters and themes.
The program kicked off with a party on the last day of school, complete with a DJ and speakers talking about book recommendations and the program itself. In recent weeks, a mobile library — shelves of books loaded into the trunk of a car — has made its way around the city.
Students can exchange a book at a different mobile library stop, or they can return it when school reconvenes in September. Organizers are working with district administrators to find a way to reward those who took part in the initiative and spent time reading while school was out, said Kerri Messler, coordinator of the district’s English Language Arts and library programs.
Project Lit has collaborated with other community organizations, partly out of a shared goal and partly because other programs attract kids to a central location, Messler said.
On Sunday, Project Lit joined the group Boys Day Out and the community basketball league for an event dubbed “Books and Ballin’” from noon until 5 p.m.
Since it began, kids have checked out more than 200 books through the mobile library, with another 50 books getting exchanged for new titles.
Throughout the process, a few dozen teachers and administrators have stopped by to take part in the initiative, something organizers said is critical to its success.
“Kids have got to know their teachers care about them, and one way they can do that is by seeing them out in the community,” said Raeshelle Frasier, who teaches at Washington-Irving Educational Center and organizes the community basketball league.
Under a cloudless sky, dozens of kids enjoyed basketball games, access to good books and a free meal, provided by Boys Day Out. Organizers said the initial success of Project Lit has them thinking about how to expand moving forward, specifically by offering reading options for elementary and high school students.
“We want to impact the community and create unity,” Frasier said. “We all want the same things. We want our neighborhood to be safe, and we want our kids to be literate.”