Many Saugerties students have their noses in books rather than smartphones thanks to different reading programs designed to stimulate the minds of kids outside the classroom.
At the Riccardi Elementary School, a program originally started by second-grade teacher Frances Murphy has grown to become part of the schools culture of reading.
“Every year we try to encourage students to continue to read over the summer and present them with a summer reading challenge packet that has 50 challenges in it,” said Riccardi principal Susan Osterhoudt. “We have a committee now that gets together, and we really try to get kids to read over the summer so that they don’t lose what they’ve attained. We don’t want any regression over the summer. Studies have shown that they will continue to gain if they continue to read.”
Reading has traditionally been a tough sell. Many kids would rather spend their summers as far away from the school experience as possible, preferring to swim or play or just laze around. With the prevalence of smartphones in the modern age, it is even more difficult to convince kids to stop seeking thrills through apps like Fortnite and instead follow the adventures of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys.
“Obviously the first goal is to improve their reading skills and promote a desire to love reading, but also to put down and step away from the electronics a little bit,” said Osterhoudt. “Just 20 minutes a day would be wonderful, if we could get the kids to do that.”
Other schools in the district have their own summer reading programs, as does the Saugerties Public Library. Riccardi also offers an accelerated program for kids who need little motivation to crack open a book. But a little motivation can also go a long way, argued Osterhoudt.
“A lot of our teachers have competitions with one another, and then there’s an incentive program through our librarian as well,” she said. “The kids really get excited about it, and they’re really motivated to do it. They read on their own and then there’s a little five-question quiz they’ll take afterwards, and they get points for that.”
The goal for participation this summer is a little over half of Riccardi’s students, said Osterhoudt, though she’d love to return to school in September to find an even greater number of kids had spent their summer vacation reading. “My goal is 100 percent, and I tell them that every year,” said Osterhoudt. “We’ll see.”
Kids at Riccardi are sent home at the end of the school year with a summer reading packet which encourages them not only to read, but also to keep track of what they’ve read and what they got out of the experience. “It ranges from reading fiction, non-fiction, biographies, poetry,” said Osterhoudt. “They can act out a story with family. They can write something, a song, a poem, their own little story. Just reading a set of directions, or reading a recipe. Recommending a book to someone. and visit the public library, whether it’s ours or a library in another town.”
Osterhoudt is encouraged by what she’s seen posted on social media. Parents have been letting the district know their kids have been reading during the hazy, lazy days of summer.
“I see postings on Facebook, so I’ll comment,” Osterhoudt said. “Parents will post that their kids are on vacation, and they’re reading on hammocks, in tents, floating on something in the water — and they’ll have a book. Parents have been very creative posting cool pictures of the kids.”
Participating in Riccardi’s summer reading program comes with another perk too. They get to see their principal do something fun at the beginning of the school year. “I always promise to do something a little crazy for them if they meet our goal, and we make it a lot of fun,” said Osterhoudt. “One year was riding a tricycle through the school for the day, or working on the roof.”
Should the reading goal be met this year, Osterhoudt said she will be a student for a day, She’ll base her performance on a character from Junie B. Jones, a popular children’s book series written by Barbara Park and illustrated by Denise Brunkus.
She’s ready. “I hope it happens,” said Osterhoudt.