When school let out in June, Genevieve Weiler, who has a 4-year-old entering kindergarten in the fall, looked into sending her son to one of the Summer Academy programs run by the education department. She wanted him to keep up the reading practice he’d started at his pre-K program during the school year, but she learned that he was too young to attend. So she took him to the Bronx Library Center. 

“He’s like a sponge when it comes to words, and I don’t want him to lose that,” Weiler said. “I’m bringing him here so he can read more and build up his vocabulary.”

During his first visit, librarians helped him create his own magnet, and he spent the next week begging to return. Weiler and son have visited regularly to “let him take advantage of the learning opportunities,” she said.

Libraries become especially vital during the summer months. Research shows that low-income black and Hispanic students can lose ground academically when not in school, and libraries are helping to address that summer slide. In the past, Mayor Bill de Blasio has routinely warned of funding cuts to traditional camps, and the risk arose again this spring, creating uncertainty around just what resources will be available to families, turning libraries into a crucial alternative. But libraries’ job could be made easier, some say, with more budget decisiveness and cooperation across multiple city agencies.

There are three library systems serving New York City. The Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens Public Library, and the New York Public Library, which covers Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx. In 2018, nearly 1 million children and teens attended summer activities in the three systems. And more are expected to take part this summer, as the three branches offer over 42,000 programs and events at more than 200 branches. (By comparison, the education department’s Summer in the City program, which provides a variety of literacy, math, computer science, and college readiness programs, served approximately 164,000 students.)

This summer’s library theme, a “Universe of Stories,” is meant to encourage children and teens to engage in literacy activities, “not just to develop skills, but for the joy of reading,” said Jonathan Clark, manager of school-age children’s programming at the NYPL.

Programs include storytimes, visits from zoologists, arts and crafts sessions, and coding camps. While all the activities fall under a central theme, each branch tailors its programming and schedule to its community. Some children will travel across the city to pursue activities at different branches, Clark said. But transportation is potentially one barrier to access, given that the Metrocards that students qualify for during the school year can’t be used during the summer break. And younger children have to be accompanied by a guardian, which can be a barrier for working parents.

To get students to participate, the libraries offer different incentives. Some branches will host an ice cream or pizza party if a certain number of books are logged. In Brooklyn, any student who completes the summer reading challenge gets two vouchers for an event of their choosing at the Barclays Center. 

“There are kids and families that our staff comes to know really well because they essentially spend their summers here with us,” said Jessica Agudelo, children’s supervising librarian at the Bronx Library Center.

Aleya Begum is part of one such family. She brings her 6-year-old to the Bronx Center at least once a week. Otherwise, she says, her daughter would spend all day watching videos online. At the library she’s more inclined to draw and play, and when the librarian calls for storytime, she’s one of the first on the rug. 

“I want her to read and be around the other children,” Begum said. “You don’t learn being inside.”

Begum’s concern is well-founded. Studies have shown that students can lose at least a month’s worth of school-year learning over the summer, undoing some of the academic gains that schools work hard to achieve. The loss increases as students age. Children and teens of all backgrounds are likely to suffer from summer slide when they aren’t engaged, but the issue is especially acute for low-income students who may have little access to the kind of enrichment activities that wealthier families can afford, exacerbating an already wide opportunity gap.

Kelly Chandler-Olcott, a professor of teaching at Syracuse University and former high school teacher of English and social studies, has studied the best tools for enrichment through summer programs she runs. A lot of summer classes are focused on remediation and credit recovery, she said, but the most effective services emphasize enrichment and socialization. 

“Getting together to do social activities, as well as academic activities, and activities that blur and blend the two makes a huge difference,” Chandler-Olcott said. “There’s an advantage to having programs open to a heterogenous mix — not just kids that we label as at risk for failure.” And on a July day at the Bronx Library Center, a seemingly diverse mix of students was appearing to benefit from just this kind of integration, engaged in group story time, computer activities, and crafting projects. 

As the Queens Public Library has expanded its summer programming, it’s learned that summer learning happens in many different ways, said Melissa Malanuk, the coordinator of teen services. 

“Even in our arts and crafts programs, where you don’t think there’s actual learning happening, there’s still skills” being absorbed, Malanuk said. 

According to a city education department spokeswoman, the department collaborates with public libraries throughout the summer and during the school year to help promote recommended reading lists and to ensure students have active library cards. This past spring, for example, the department worked with all three public library systems to provide two days of professional development to 300 school librarians.

Still, Jonathan Clark, from NYPL, says that more coordination with the department could help libraries be more effective. For example, the summer book lists given to students by their individual schools often don’t align with the book lists created within the library system. Students may come in looking for older titles that may not be in print or that the library has in only limited quantities, meaning there aren’t enough copies to go around.

We definitely support the youth in the reading that they’ve been assigned from school,” Clark said. “We work with the department of education the best that we can, and we would love to actually develop that list along with them but we’re not exactly to that point yet.”

The city could also provide far more notice to both libraries and families about what other programs may be available during the summer months that can already be a stretch for low-income parents struggling to find affordable and productive activities for children out of school.

In June, Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson agreed to provide city libraries with $33 million in additional funding. The library systems also received a $1 million grant from New York Life Foundation to support summer learning for middle school students. With that money, Queens has started a six-week science, technology, engineering, and math camp. In Brooklyn, the grant has been used to support “Retro Detectives,” where students use archival sources to discover the history of their borough. The foundation also provides the libraries with trained volunteers from the company to help run the programs. 

Because the funds and personnel can capitalize on libraries’ existing infrastructure — and already engendered trust within communities — the extra money and staff can go a long way and help extend the impact of library programming that occurs year-round. 

“Summer can be a great time of promise or potential for kids that are behind to catch up or it can be a time of great risk where they start to lose what they learned,” said Marlyn Torres, the senior program officer with New York Life. 

Torres said the foundation, which has worked with the library systems for decades, views libraries as cornerstones of their communities, particularly for low income families.

“Summers can be a struggle for a lot of our families,” said Mary Smith, the program assistant for children, youth, and family services for the Queens Public Library. “There’s a lot of families who do not have the money to send their kids to camp or to do other cultural events throughout the summer, and I think the library really does fill that need.”

This spring, the mayor warned of cuts up to $20.35 million in funding for summer camp programming for 34,000 middle school students enrolled in after-school programs operated by the Department of Youth and Community Development. He raised similar alarms the previous year before backtracking weeks before the end of the school year. The funding was eventually restored in June. There are approximately 800 city operated summer programs, serving about 100,000 students in addition to the programs offered by the education department. The city programs are “operating as planned,” according to a representative of the Department of Youth and Community Development.

But the prolonged uncertainty had several advocates worried that some providers, unable to rely on eleventh hour funding, would close their doors to students. And parents and caregivers can’t always wait until the last moment to make plans and don’t want to count on programs that may disappear if the money doesn’t come through. 

“The city council has stepped up for New York’s children and their families by calling for funding for after-school and summer camp, and we are extremely grateful for their support,” said Susan Stamler, the executive director of United Neighborhood Houses in a statement in April. But the mayor was continuing “to perpetuate uncertainty that only hurts the most vulnerable families, forcing them to wait until the last minute to plan for the months ahead,” she said at the time.

The mayor’s office did not immediately return request for comment.

For Anabel Perez, a direct support professional who cares for a 7-year-old, special-needs student, the reliability of the library is its biggest asset. 

“We’re here every single day,” said Perez. “It’s so important for him to socialize with the kids and keep learning even when he’s not in school. He always has a place to go.”