Haverhill group gets national award for keeping kids reading during pandemic

Courtesy photoGraydon England, a student at Hunking School in Haverhill, was the citywide winner for grades three through five of the Haverhill Promise Attendance Awareness Poster Design Contest.

HAVERHILL — The pandemic left local students with plenty of time on their hands — and they used it well.

So well, in fact, that they made Haverhill a model for other communities.

The national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has named Haverhill as a 2021 Bright Spot community because the city was successful in encouraging students to read regularly during the pandemic.

Haverhill is the only Massachusetts community to receive the award, which was based on the success of Haverhill Promise, the city's own campaign for grade-level reading. The local campaign was launched in 2018, and since the spring of 2020 has adapted to challenges caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Organizers of the campaign said their goal was to push the cause of keeping Haverhill students reading at grade level. The campaign was having success before the pandemic, but when the health crisis hit and students were out of school, a new challenge emerged: how to keep kids reading regularly when they were outside their academic setting. Kids had plenty of time on their hands and few places to go due to the community shutdown, but children were outside their normal academic setting. That left them with less of an educational push toward reading.

Haverhill Promise remained committed to its goal, organizers said, and was successful in encouraging students to read daily at home.

Projects included the Haverhill Promise/Haverhill Public Schools bookmobile, which delivered more than 2,200 new and gently used children’s books to sites that distributed meals to students around the city while schools were closed; and an education awareness poster contest. The contest challenged students to highlight the importance of remote, in-person and hybrid school attendance by using the phrase “school every day, no matter which way."

The Haverhill Promise Reading Challenge was another project popular with students, luring hundreds of children to participate. They read for at least 20 minutes each day at home after COVID-19 closed schools. Participants tracked their daily reading and submitted a log at the end of each week. Haverhill Promise selected five participants at random each week to win a $25 gift card to Market Basket, Barnes & Noble or a Haverhill restaurant of the students' choice.

More than 750 students from all grade levels participated in last year's reading challenge, leaders of Haverhill Promise said.

"This has been a very challenging and unique time for Haverhill students and their families, but with a little creativity and a whole lot of collaboration from community partners, we have found ways to keep the cause of grade level reading front and center during the pandemic,” said Jenny Arndt, campaign director for Haverhill Promise.

"We appreciate this national recognition as a Bright Spot community and look forward to not only sharing our experiences, but continuing to learn from other Bright Spot communities about how they’ve navigated the challenges caused by COVID-19," Arndt said.

Haverhill Promise targets reading at grade level because reading proficiently by the end of the third grade is one of the most recognized indicators of students achieving high school graduation, career success and healthy lives. Experts say 80 percent of economically challenged children fail to reach the third-grade reading level milestone.

Students participating in the Haverhill Promise program did more than keep their noses in books — they also took paint brushes in their hands to express their love of reading. Late last summer, 200 students painted a mural with help from the local arts organization Creative Haverhill.

The finished mural — titled “Reading Takes Us Places” — is on display in downtown Haverhill. It celebrates the dedication of students and families who made daily reading a priority when schools were closed.

Haverhill Promise is developing new ideas for improving school readiness, summer learning and school attendance, Arndt said.

More information is available at haverhillpromise.com and gradelevelreading.net.

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