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Freedom Readers -- Building Community One Reader at a Time

Sacramento Public Library, CA

Innovation Summary

The partnership between Sacramento Public Library and Isleton Elementary School (River Delta School District) started with the simple premise that the public library can engage parents and children to improve reading skills and scores and change community perceptions about the library. This resulted in a multi-year initiative with outstanding results.

Problem Statement

The Isleton Branch Library serves a community of 800 residents in the system’s most rural region. With unemployment at more than 25%, and few opportunities beyond agriculture, providing children with the opportunity to learn more about the world and raise their own expectations is critical. Isleton Elementary School has an enrollment of 148 students. These students face multiple challenges because of economic hardship, cultural barriers and language differences. In fact, 67% are Latino/Hispanic, and 86% are economically disadvantaged. The Library and the School set about testing the hypothesis that a more intentional partnership between the two entities would help families make the connection that learning does not stop with the final school bell. Beginning with funding from an LSTA grant, Sacramento Public Library partnered with Isleton Elementary School to engage parents and their children who required help building reading skills.


The first year a reading specialist worked with the 70 lowest-performing students at the school to improve their reading skills and library staff hosted weekly class visits and conducted innovative programs. The library purchased books on world cultures, led a “read around the world” series of programs using Google Earth, crafts, foods, and Skype to learn about other lands and cultures. In addition, Family Reading Nights were held, with attendance ranging from 40 to 180 participants. Parents learned how to develop their children’s literacy skills at home and received information about library resources to strengthen the link between home, library, and school. Each year a key component of the initiative is a family literacy night, featuring an author or illustrator who provides an interactive and entertaining program that engages all participants. These authors included Matthew Gollub, who is fluent in Spanish and Japanese; David Schwartz, who connects math, science, literature, and everyday life; and Ashley Wolff, who showed the students and their families how a story moves through a book and how to grasp various concepts related to literacy. Another feature in the evolving story of Freedom Readers is something new for the community -- field trips. These provide families with new experiences: a science center, a zoo, and the Sacramento Public Library’s Central Library, where they witnessed the publication of their book, “A Little Bit of Everything,” published on the I Street Press.


The first year of the project included a third partner, The Wonder of Reading, a Los Angeles area nonprofit whose mission was to build libraries in charter schools. At the end of the first year, reading scores of 97% of the participants were raised. For 78% of them, this meant at least one grade level of improvement. While these outcomes were beyond the goals set, The Wonder of Reading decided to focus solely on charter schools, providing the Library and the school with more independence in program development. Results for skills improvement and reading scores continued in 2012 with 89% of the students improving by at least one grade level. Better yet, Isleton Elementary School was recognized as a California Distinguished School. In addition, the school’s API (Academic Performance Index) scores went up by a whopping 31 points. With the program now in its third year, the Library and the school are committed to seeing a long-term change in how parents in one small community perceive learning and interact with their public library.