The Wheels on the Bookmobile Go Round and Round

Columbia Falls educators who dispense books from their car celebrate second season fighting the summer learning slide

By Clare Menzel
The Bookmobile, pictured on its last trip of summer 2016. Courtesy photo

One sunny afternoon last week, Betsy Kohnstamm, a reading language specialist at Ruder Elementary in Columbia Falls, rounded the corner in a quiet neighborhood where three young girls were resting on their bicycle handlebars.

“Let’s stop,” Amy Hanson, a first-grade teacher at Ruder said from the backseat, grabbing her phone to crank the pop music on the car’s speakers. She hopped out and waved hello.

“Hi kids,” she said. “Do you want any books? I like your bikes. Have you been reading this summer?”

Tentative at first, the girls were drawn over when Kohnstamm began unloading from the trunk tubs of colorful, shiny new books. She kneeled down and helped them flip through the stacks.

“Have you read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom? How about ‘Pete the Cat’?” Kohnstamm asked.

“Pete the Cat – I love Pete the Cat,” one girl exclaimed.

Kohnstamm passed a copy over, and after hugging it tight, the girls began reading.

“This is the Bookmobile,” Hanson explained to the girls’ mother, who had come outside to see what all the squealing was about.

The Bookmobile is a summer project that Hanson and Kohnstamm launched to stave off the “summer learning slide,” the educational losses suffered during summer vacation. Researchers have attributed up to 85 percent of the reading achievement gap between peers to access to learning opportunities during school break. Teachers spend between four and six weeks re-teaching material each fall, but the slide can have a long-term impact, as the disparity increases cumulatively over multiple summers to leave some students years behind in reading skills. Simply reading four books over the summer can effectively decrease the gap.

Hanson and Kohnstamm had worked for years to put together a summer learning program, but found that “the kids [we] most wanted to come didn’t show up,” Kohnstamm said. The pair realized that if a family wasn’t instilling good reading habits or taking trips to the library, they likely wouldn’t seek out a summer program.

So Kohnstamm and Hanson decided to bring the books to the children, and the Bookmobile was born. In their second summer, they now have a route with 35 families and serve some 75 students per week with a two-day work schedule. Whenever they spot children at the park or on the sidewalk, they pull over and pass out piles of free books. They offer books for readers of all ages, including adults, to get parents in the habit of reading. They encourage readers to write their names in the books, take ownership, and build their own libraries.

This year, Hanson and Kohnstamm purchased approximately $3,000 worth of books with the help of donations from the Town Pump Foundation, Rotary Club of Columbia Falls, and Columbia Falls School District, as well as two $1,000 grants from Plum Creek and the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. Most books come from Scholastic, though Kohnstamm says she also spent a third of the budget on National Geographic publications. The pair hopes to find future funding to convert a retired ambulance or food truck into a true bookstore on wheels.

After the three little Pete the Cat readers chose their books, Hanson and Kohnstamm packed up the tubs for the next stop.

“I love reading books. Read more books. More books, more books,” one girl said as the Bookmobile sped off.

Hanson smiled and called out the window, “Happy reading!”

At a later stop just down the road, a group of girls began dancing when they caught sight of the dark green Honda from their lawn. After they chose their books — copies from Magic Tree House and Magic School Bus series — they sat right down on the grass to read. At each home along the route, parents said their children love the service, and that if they miss a week, “it’s devastating.” The mother of one 13-year-old said her daughter devours her new books and “two days later, she’s asking, ‘Can the Bookmobile come back?’”

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