The same scene unfolded across more than a dozen schools and one church on a Friday in May—schoolchildren crowded around a sturdy wooden structure with its small doors sealed shut, a gathering sense of excitement in the air as its contents were soon to be revealed. Students at 13 Peoria public schools—as well as the Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center and St. Paul Baptist Church—stood eagerly awaiting the ribbon cutting of their school’s Little Free Library.
The ceremonies marked a crucial moment for Read Peoria, an initiative founded by Align Peoria to support Peoria Public Schools’ goal for all students to be reading on or above grade level by third grade. The Little Free Libraries are an opportunity for families across the city to access books easily, at any time and without cost—one of the primary obstacles facing young readers, especially in the summertime.
Read Peoria is one of several initiatives Align Peoria implemented for the 2018-2019 school year that are positively affecting student success. In addition to the focus on literacy, the organization addressed career awareness and readiness with the “See It. Be It.” pilot program for K-5 students and an internship pilot for at-risk high school students. “We were able to engage the community with these successful pilots—beyond even the City of Peoria and throughout the region—because we were able to really convey the importance and the needs of our students,” explains Align Peoria executive director Marcia Bolden.
The past school year proved to be an influential one for Align Peoria, a collective impact group formed to leverage community resources to support the students of Peoria Public Schools. The Align model brings together a diverse group of educators, business leaders, community nonprofit leaders and parents. Its motto: schools can’t do it all, but a community can.
The intersection of Align’s mission was evident at the Little Free Library ribbon cuttings on May 17th. When the doors swung open to reveal a miniature library holding dozens of books, the students’ excitement surged. At one location, the children began chanting, “We love books! We love books!”
“The expression on the kids’ faces was one of pure joy,” says Cheryl Sanfilip, a retired district administrator and Align Peoria operating board member. “It was pure joy.”
Little Free Libraries For All
One of the focal points for Peoria Public Schools under the direction of superintendent Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat centers around ensuring that all students can read on grade level by third grade. “Third grade is a critical juncture in a child’s education,” she explains, “where students begin the shift from learning to read to reading to learn.”
The research backing up this concept is immense. Ninety-six percent of students who read on grade level at third grade go on to graduate high school on time, while struggling readers rarely catch up with their peers academically—and are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
With that in mind, the Align Peoria literacy team discussed ways to support the reading goal through the efforts and resources of the community. One of the prohibitive factors they identified for Peoria Public Schools students, particularly those from low-income households, involves access to a wide menu of books across a spectrum of reading levels. The ability to buy a book—or arrange for transportation to a library—may not be an option in many cases.
The team agreed that improving access to books should be its first project, scuttling plans to pilot a Little Free Library at just one school. Instead, the initiative was expanded so that every district school with K-3 students would have a Little Free Library filled with books by the start of summer, generating momentum for the Slide into Summer reading program through the Peoria Public Library.
The philosophy behind a Little Free Library is simple: Take. Keep. Return. Give. With locations dotting the entire city of Peoria, access to a wide variety of books could be a simple walk away.
In trademark Align fashion, the project pulled the entire community together. Construction students from Woodruff Career and Technical Center were tasked with designing, building and installing each Little Free Library. All 15 libraries were generously adopted by community partners or individuals who care deeply about the students of Peoria Public Schools. Perhaps the biggest contribution came from Stacy Hardin, owner of the Book Rack bookstore, who committed to initially filling every Little Free Library with books and storing any extra donated books at her store.
The ribbon cutting ceremonies were both a culmination of Align Peoria’s planning and a celebratory launching point for young student readers. “That was one of the best days of my career,” Sanfilip says. “This is 41 years in education for me, and that was definitely a highlight.”
The energy of the day didn’t end with the morning ribbon cuttings, either. One teacher at Franklin Primary School left the building just after 6pm that day, only to discover a line still formed outside of its Little Free Library, with families seeking to pick up books.
Piloting Careers and Essential Skills
Dr. Thom Simpson, while attending a national Align conference in Nashville about career education, heard a quote that left a lasting impression. “If these kids can’t see it, they can’t be it,” recites the retired Peoria Public Schools administrator and Align Peoria operating board member. “And that just stuck in my head.”
For decades, Simpson explains, school districts focused their efforts on college readiness. But that philosophy has shifted in recent years. During Desmoulin-Kherat’s tenure as superintendent, the district has embarked on a plan to reimagine Peoria Public Schools as places that prepare students to enter college or the workforce as soon as they graduate high school. “We are transforming our schools and redefining ‘ready’ by allowing our students to discover their passions and interests, and then exposing them to career pathways that match those interests,” she explains.
With this framework in mind, Align Peoria set its sights on providing career awareness and work-based learning opportunities to students in the district. It was immediately clear the students needed to be introduced to a wide range of possible careers at an early age—as early as kindergarten. And so, harkening back to the phrase Simpson heard in Nashville, the “See It. Be It.” pilot for K-5 students was born.
Working with Trish O’Shaughnessy, coordinator of the Peoria Public Schools Foundation’s Horizons career readiness program, the pilot sought to tap the region’s deep pool of professionals and put them in front of district students. Two career clusters based on Illinois State Standards were identified for each grade level, and speakers from those careers were asked to present in the classroom. In turn, the students were able to go on field trips to related business sites across the city, thanks to a collection of generous sponsors.
“The response from the business community and the community overall was tremendous,” Bolden declares. Indeed, a total of 45 business, organization, nonprofit and retired community partners participated as classroom speakers or hosted field trips, donating an astounding total of 152 hours of speaking time.
Not only did these classroom visits offer a chance for students to learn about various career options, they also introduced the importance of “essential skills.” These essential skills—being punctual, communicating effectively and working well with others—are the number-one trait employers are looking for today, Sanfilip explains.
By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, every single one of the grade-level classrooms had hosted a career speaker in both semesters, introducing 5,741 students to an array of careers and essential skills. In the coming year, programming will expand even further into the sixth grade.
For a program that was considered a pilot, its scope was far broader and more influential than originally conceived—and its purpose gets to the heart of the Align Peoria mission. “The program brings the community into our schools, and the field trips bring our students into the community,” Sanfilip explains. “That’s what Align Peoria is all about.”
Another Align pilot—much smaller in scale, but no less important—that also proved successful was an internship program with Advanced Medical Transport. During the second semester, eight Manual students were employed by AMT in a half-day paid internship, each rotating through different job opportunities while gaining training and certification in CPR. Beyond on-the-job training and mentoring, the students met each week with district personnel to hone their essential skills. AMT CEO Andrew Rand credits their hard work and says the internship program is one his business would like to continue for years to come.
Both the “See It. Be It.” and internship pilots will be folded into the Horizons program under O’Shaughnessy’s direction for the coming school year, as Align Peoria develops new initiatives to support students. If the past year was any indication, the community is energized for ways to help Peoria Public Schools—and as a result, the future of the city—succeed.
“For the community to rally around Dr. Kherat’s vision in this way is huge,” Bolden suggests. “And this is only the beginning.” PM
Employers seeking to provide speakers or career opportunities may contact Trish O’Shaughnessy at [email protected]. Donations of picture books for younger readers are still needed for the Little Free Libraries. Book donations should go to The Book Rack at Oak Cliff Shopping Center, 4408 N. Knoxville Ave. #2C, in Peoria.