When the summer months hit, most children want to get as far away from a book as humanly possible. It's just like that old school song, "No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks." When the final school bell rings in June, kids trade their educational materials for the beach ball and the bathing suit. However, that's not the case at the North Bergen Free Public Library. The library is offering a host of different programs for the young and old alike, in an effort to get residents to come in from the heat and relax with a book or two. The latest effort by the library's director, Sai Rao, features teaching youngsters proper library skills. The North Bergen Public Library received a $10,000 grant from the New Jersey State Library to initiate the Library Skills Program through the summer months. Because fourth and eighth graders are required to take the ESPA (Elementary School Proficiency Assessment) tests every year, Rao and board member Robert Peirano agreed to focus the attention on those two age groups, primarily those students slated to enter the fourth grade in September. So the Library Skills Program kicked off at the North Bergen Library last week with approximately 40 students participating in the twice-weekly sessions. Yes, youngsters actually wanting to come inside and learn during the summer. On their own. A novel approach
"We sent out about 1,000 letters and fliers with applications and registration forms," Rao said last week. "And we received about 40. We understand it was very hard to start this in the summer, but we're still very pleased with the response and the turnout." The students are taught how to use the library's card catalog and how to find information through many different sources, like dictionaries, encyclopedia and the Internet. The students are also taught the Dewey decimal system, the almost-antiquated way of finding reference materials in a library. "We try to make it as interesting as possible for the children," Rao said. "We let them pick out a topic, then they have to find all the information out on that topic to write a report. The kids don't even realize that they're doing work." Sure sounds like schoolwork. But the kids all said that they are having fun, participating in the program. Nine-year-old Jackie Mongelli said if she wasn't a part of the program at the library, she would more than likely be bored at home. "I'd be watching TV all day," Mongelli said. "But I like reading. It's fun. And being here has been fun. I'm happy to be a part of it." Ten-year-old Miguel Diaz was eager to be a part of the program. "Because I want to learn something," Diaz said. "It's exciting to be a part of this. I want to learn things that will be very helpful to me." Vanessa Hernandez agreed. "It's going to help me to get ready for the fourth grade," Hernandez said. "It's helping me to learn how to use the library, and yet have fun at the same time." Johanna Herrera, 10, was asked if it was hard to give up the fun she would be having with her summer vacation. "It wasn't hard," Herrera said. "I wanted to be here. I like to learn and I like to read. So this was easy for me." Nine-year-old Samantha Acosta echoed those sentiments. "I like to read all kinds of books, so this wasn't hard for me at all," Acosta said. "I'm happy to be here." North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco was on hand for the opening of the program. "I'm happy with the program and I'm happy with the response," Sacco said. "This is just another example of the work that Sai Rao has done as the library's director, getting the grant to make the program possible, with no cost to the township. Any assistance we can give to the children's learning is positive. The children are well motivated and volunteering their time." Sacco, who is also the assistant superintendent of schools for the township's Board of Education, added, "and it's definitely helped, because our test score ratings have gone up. On the state average overall, we've done very well. So this program will help those scores." Rao, who started to apply for the available state grants within the last two years, has seen the fruits of her hard work pay off with programs like the Library Skills. "Last year was the first time we ever applied for a grant and it helped us to get our computer center," Rao said. "It takes a lot of work, applying for the grants and keeping track of everything, but it's well worth it because of what we're able to do. The children and parents seem pleased with the program. The parents really need the credit, because they're the ones who are bringing in the kids." Rao added, "But I am amazed with how much the kids want to learn. I really thought it might be tough to start in the summer, but they've really taken to the program. I think they want to read more, and a program like this encourages kids to read more." There are other programs, like the library's Summer Fantasy, which includes a Harry Potter club. The library also has programs for toddlers ages 2 through 5 daily at 10:30 a.m., as well as other programs for children, teens, adults and seniors. Perhaps reading can become more fundamental in battling the heat.