• Molly Ness

Gaining Ground

Updated: Feb 9

Oklahoma-based school librarian Kirby MacKenzie and reading specialist Lisa Shotts never rest in their literacy advocacy. When she served as an instructional coach, Lisa noticed an alarming trend: that most students slid back several reading levels over the summer. Known as the summer slide, this trend is well-documented in reading research by Richard Allington. To address the problem, she began a mobile library: using a very old truck to deliver books from the school library. In subsequent years – and with the financial support of a grant – all 550 students in her school building chose 10 books from a Scholastic Book Fair to take home for their summer reading. Lisa Shotts explains,

We mapped out a route for our mobile library (a borrowed van from our District) and made sure we visited each of our neighborhoods. With the help of loud music and weekly popsicles our attendance grew to hundreds of kids each week visiting our library. After analyzing the data from this summer’s program we found that students that visited our mobile library 5 or more times did not slide but and increased their reading levels. We knew this was working."


In 2017, Gaining Ground was founded with the mission of closing the reading achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students by providing high interest, student selected books, increasing family involvement, and providing ongoing literacy supports for students living in under-served areas. In summer 2018, Gaining Ground retro-fitted an old small school bus and created a book bus - stocked with primarily new popular books. They serve Tulsa-based students, with no access to public libraries, school libraries or other book resources throughout the summer months. In its first summer, the bus traveled to 30 scheduled stops and served 900 students. At each stop, children board the bus, talk and write about their books, and experience a read aloud. When students ask us how many books can they take our answer is always “How many books can you read this week?” Lisa explains,

“The most amazing part of our programs are the relationships we build with the students. They know that without fail we will be there in their neighborhoods excited about books, talking about books and sharing our reading lives with them!”


Their elementary school earned the attention of Ellen Degeneres, who donated a mobile book van in addition to thousands of dollars for books. Each consecutive summer the data showed that if students have access to books over the summer months, they did not lose academic growth.


The Impact of Gaining Ground

  • 85% of students maintained their reading levels or grew as a reader – overcoming the traditional summer slide.

  • · Students visit the Book Bus an average of at least five times throughout the summer.

"What we didn’t expect is the lack of life-long reading habits that book desserts create. These deserts do not just affect children’s reading levels, but also their ability to connect with books, to know what reading feels like, and to know themselves as readers. Book desserts don’t just prevent students from reading; they prevent students from being readers.”
- Founder Lisa Shotts

Gaining Ground aims to expand in its outreach and programming. Lisa explains, “As we approach the summer of 2020 we have committed to supporting five schools in our city’s book deserts - providing 3,200 students with books for their home libraries, weekly access to books on the mobile library, summer literacy camps for 150 students and after school programs for the fall…over 40,000 books will be given away in 2020.”


Check out the media coverage about Gaining Ground:

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