Does learning have to stop once summer begins? Kara Cowdrick doesn’t think so.
At the conclusion of her fifth year of teaching in 2015, Cowdrick said her end-of-year goodbyes to her fifth grade students at Charles Brant Chesney Elementary School in Gwinnett County. What she did not expect was the reluctance of her students as they departed on their summer vacations. Cowdrick recounted how her students shared that “the summer was boring”. It made her wonder: What was summer break like for her students?
Award Winner: Kara Cowdrick
Winner Cohort: 2015
Project Title: Chesney Champion Book Mobile
Student Reach as of 2018: 760 and counting
That same summer, Cowdrick enrolled in a Ph.D program in Curriculum and Instruction at Mercer University. While in her program, Cowdrick investigated the phenomenon known to all educators as the “summer slide.” “Summer slide” is the tendency for students, especially those from low-income families, to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year. Cowdrick knew that the families she served from lower-income households did not have the time or resources to enroll their students in enriching summer camps or to take them to various activities at the public library during the day. Cowdrick felt that the responsibility was on the local school to provide more learning opportunities and books throughout the summer to the kids they cared for during the year. Not content to just sit by, Cowdrick decided to do something about it.
Either by chance or coincidence, Cowdrick was nominated for the Teach On Project's Awards for Excellence in Education the next fall. Through the application process, she was able to build out a project idea that would soon become the Chesney Champion Bookmobile. Once she won the coveted award, the $3,500 project stipend allowed her to put her project into motion -- literally. Cowdrick was able to purchase over 1,000 books, organizational supplies, and prizes for the Chesney Bookmobile. “I felt like I had won the lottery when I could go in and pick hundreds of books to buy for our students. I never had that much fun shopping before”, Cowdrick remembers. In the couple of months leading up to the summer of 2016, Cowdrick was surprised with several hundred books generously donated by a woman who saw an announcement of Cowdrick’s win of the TOP award on WSB-TV. She wanted to see her daughter’s childhood books go to good use, and thought the bookmobile was the perfect place for them to land. Cowdrick was all set to begin.
The Chesney Champion Bookmobile is a traveling library that visits the three Duluth apartment complexes that hold a majority of the Chesney school community. Each Wednesday in June and July, the bookmobile stays in each apartment complex’s parking lot for a little under an hour, with bins of books that the students can look through and take home with them for the next week. During following Wednesdays, students are rewarded with small prizes and popsicles for bringing their books back and for completing reading response sheets. The best part is, they get to check out more books!
The Chesney Champion Bookmobile was an instant hit. The very first day, numerous families who were eagerly awaiting her bookmobile before she arrived met her in the parking lot. But they were not only excited, they were reading. At the end of her first summer, Cowdrick calculated that 214 students visited the Chesney Bookmobile, checking out a total of 2,171 books.
In fact, the excitement continued past the summer. After the Mayor of Duluth volunteered with the book mobile, she shared her experience with a local car dealership. In January of 2017, Rick Case of Duluth surprised Cowdrick with the use of a van and a driver every week to help with her bookmobile. This extra set of hands and storage space allowed the bookmobile to get bigger and more impactful rolling into its second summer.
The Chesney Champion Bookmobile continues in 2018, adding as two more locations on its tour through Duluth and the Chesney community. Cowdrick has successfully secured additional funding for more books, and numerous volunteers that help out each week. Though she is grateful to all, she shares a deep gratitude for all of the parents that help in the most important ways.
“It was the parents who brought their children to the bookmobile each week. It was the parents who encouraged their children to read their books at home and fill out their reader’s response sheets. I never anticipated how much the parents would impact this project prior to it beginning. I quickly realized that this project was successful because of our students’ parents. Their on-time and consistent attendance each week at our bookmobile showed me that parents do care greatly about the reading achievement of their children. They may not understand how to read the books their children are reading in English, but they do understand that reading is important.”
The Chesney Champion Bookmobile not only encourages students to read during the summer, but also connects the community to the school. Cowdrick hopes her students continue to feel loved by their school and community as they move forward one book at a time.
Visit here to see photos and read more about the Chesney Champion Bookmobile's Summer of 2018.