From cradle to career: how Rural Library Network is helping improve literacy

Nationwide, only 35 percent of rural public school students meet reading achievement levels by fourth grade. That is according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but a new effort hopes to use rural libraries to improve literacy.

The Rural Library Network is working to bring together librarians and educators from across the country to share best practices.

Dreama Gentry, Executive Director of Partners for Education at Berea College, says that the initiative started during the pandemic.

According to Gentry, “It was natural that this network arose as a way to virtually connect each month with libraries across the country to talk about best practices, and I think, one piece around our network that makes it unique, because there are other organizations working with libraries across the country, of course, is ours really is focused on the library’s role to support young people from cradle to career.”

Librarians from 30 states and three countries attended the first summit.

“One of the very first webinars was around how have libraries pivoted during COVID to still serve their young people and what have they stepped into that they may not have been doing,” Gentry states. “So, we have a library that is really strong and helping address food insecurity by doing the feeding program at the library and they actually pivoted that a bit during COVID that share that practice.”

She says that other discussions have focused on connecting with teenagers, funding for libraries, and workforce development.

“This last session we focus on STEM, and you know, we know that in rural America, STEM is critical and more young people need to be stepping into STEM careers,” she adds. “So, we had librarians talking about how they were using and engaging STEM practices and programs during out-of-school time and summer.”

Gentry says that the Rural Library Network is also focusing on a “collective impact approach” to getting employers and community members engaged in the process.

They have also announced 22 fellowships in 20 states, who will dig deeper into rural literacy.

“The fellows commit to a year and a half with us. During this time, they will virtually connect with one another and then think about how collective impact in their community can improve third-grade reading, and there’s some project dollars that we’re providing them thanks to the partnership with Save the Children,” she notes. “They’ll get the professional development, and now, we’re actually looking at also providing them with a VISTA volunteer who’s a resident in their community that would also serve alongside them.”

The Rural Library Network is a joint project from Berea College and the non-profit, Save the Children.