What began as a personal bookmobile project is now receiving rave reviews for its impact on the education of young readers during summer vacation.
Elon education alumna Kara Cowdrick ’10 is using a grant and local business support to expand her summer efforts to encourage young readers at Chesney Elementary School, in Duluth, Georgia, where she is a fifth grade teacher. Her efforts are receiving praise from the school system, parents and media outlets in the Atlanta area, including a feature story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Cowdrick’s project began in summer 2016 when she used her mother’s minivan to serve as a makeshift bookmobile, bringing books to two apartment complexes where many students live. Her goal was to prevent the reading level “summer slide” that educators often see. She made the trip weekly with the help of community volunteers, fellow teachers and school administrators. Each week about 60-80 students borrowed books.
Cowdrick’s project caught the attention of the city’s mayor and a local car dealer. So this summer, the Chesney Champion Bookmobile has use of a van from the dealership along with two employees who drive the vehicle, which is stocked with about 1,400 books. The books were purchased through a grant from the Atlanta Families for Excellence in Education. The total number of volunteers has grown to about 60 and the number of children served each week sometimes reaches as high as 130.
“Every year we notice our students’ reading levels decrease during the summer, but we weren’t doing anything about it,” Cowdrick told the Atlanta newspaper. “The kids didn’t always have access to the public library, and a lot of their parents were working during the day, too. So I got the idea for a bookmobile. We put all these books into plastic bins and took them to the parking lot of the complexes where it was easy for kids to reach in and get the ones they wanted.”
Cowrick says her goal is to “show the students that reading is fun and they can do it all year long, not just during the school year.” She provides reading incentives, including prizes and popsicles, and gives the children response sheets so they can write about the books they read and improve their writing skills.
Cowdrick’s involvement in helping young readers has its roots in Elon’s “It Takes a Village” Project, an after-school program founded by School of Education faculty member Jean Rattigan-Rohr for struggling young readers and their parents in the Alamance-Burlington School System. Cowdrick took part in the program during her senior year and was paired with a fourth grader whose first language was Spanish. She developed a relationship with the boy and his family and began to see improvements in his reading and confidence.
“Dr. Rohr is my mentor and my inspiration,” Cowdrick says. “From the Village Project I learned that it is not our job only to focus on the school year, the school day and what happens in the classroom. We need to support students beyond the classroom walls. Seeing the collaboration in the Village Project ignited my fire to do something similar in my community.”
“I am not at all surprised Kara’s bookmobile project is doing so well,” says Rattigan-Rohr, who serves as Elon’s executive director of community partnerships and director of the Center for Access and Success. “Kara was an amazing student during her time here at Elon, she has proven be a fantastic teacher whose love of working in the community continues to be a hallmark of her practice. I can’t wait to see where her efforts lead.”
Cowdrick was selected as her school’s Teacher of the Year in 2013-14 and has served as a local school and county staff development facilitator, mentor for new teachers and pre-service teachers, Teacher Advisory Council representative, Summer Bridge educator, Relay for Life Team co-coordinator and Drama Club sponsor.