By REBECCA LEFTWICH | Apr. 26, 2019 – 5:57 PM

Research shows students who don’t read books during summer breaks can lose some of their skills, and local school media specialists want to prevent that loss.

Jessica Pope talks to students at Atkinson Elementary about the school’s book fair. Atkinson was awarded a $2,000 grant to buy children’s books for distribution at this summer’s “Books on Blankets” program.

“Books on Blankets,” a summer reading event, is the brainchild of librarians from four elementary schools in the Coweta County School System. On two summer Saturdays – tentative dates are June 1 and July 6 – elementary-aged students will be invited to gather at First Avenue Park to hear read-aloud by community leaders, enjoy free ice cream and take home free books.

The program got a huge boost from the Georgia Department of Education, which awarded a $2,000 summer literacy grant to Atkinson Elementary School’s librarian, Jessica Pope, to buy books for participants.

“Our community currently does not have a program like this, but together with other nearby schools, we would like to start this summer by providing shared reading experiences during summer break for our students,” Pope said. “We would like for prominent figures in our community to read stories aloud during the events so that students can see people they look up to interacting with and reading books.

“Students need to see examples of grown-ups sharing and getting excited about books, even when it isn’t about school,” she added.

Pope said Atkinson administration and staff have worked on increasing access to books this year, both in the media center and in the classroom, but access to books during the summer is an issue for many children. That’s where Books on Blankets comes in.

“The idea is to get more books into children’s hands,” she said. “When students go home for the summer, many times the faucet is turned off on reading, which puts these students at a great disadvantage.”

Studies have shown that even a couple of summers without books can put students a full grade level behind in reading. But reading at least a handful of books over the summer can be enough to keep up the skills learned during the previous year and enable students to make even more progress in the next school year.

That’s what sparked the idea for Books on Blankets, a collaboration between Pope, Mary Dean of Jefferson Parkway Elementary, Jo Nase of Moreland Elementary and Shannon Ewing of Elm Street Elementary.

“We knew we had to do something to physically put books in the hands of our students over the summer,” Pope said. “Our students cannot read over the summer if they do not have any books to read. The sad fact is that a great number of our kids live in book deserts.”

While public libraries are a fantastic, free resource, Pope said, many factors prevent students from taking advantage of those facilities.

“It’s not the answer for all families,” she said. “The public library has stringent requirements to get cards, like proof of residency or picture ID. Some families have no way to get to a library. Some families have anxiety over past fees and penalties, and some families do not have libraries near them.”

The Georgia Department of Education partnered with the Georgia Foundation for Public Education to award six summer literacy grants – including Atkinson’s – to support innovative summer literacy initiatives in school media centers.

“We know that students who don’t have opportunities to read and learn over the summer months can lose significant educational ground, widening the academic achievement gap,” said Paige Pushkin, GFPE’s executive director. “(We are) pleased to provide this funding to help schools stop summer learning loss in their communities.”