Education

Cedar Rapids Kennedy students take on literacy for senior project

(File photo) Books on the shelves in the Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library sorting center at the Cedar Rapids Public Library in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Mar. 4, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) Books on the shelves in the Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library sorting center at the Cedar Rapids Public Library in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Mar. 4, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Graduation is next week for seniors at Kennedy High School. But through their hard work over the past school year, they hope to leave a lasting literary legacy in the Cedar Rapids area.

Each year the senior class at Kennedy High School takes on a project to benefit the community. This year, the project was led by Samantha Bennett, Grace Duffy and Grace Herring, all seniors at Kennedy and officers for the National Honor Society, which spearheads the project.

“We coordinate the entire class’ involvement in a yearlong project to benefit the community,” Duffy said.

“Our main goal is to give back, and we thought this year it would be a fun idea to partner with the public library because they really do offer something for everyone in our community,” added Bennett.

The idea came together after a visit to the library and a conversation about many people in the community not having access to books in their homes, Herring said. They thought having their project revolve around literacy would be the perfect way to be part of the community’s solution to access to books.

A meeting with library leaders Amber Mussman and Jessica Link led to the idea of creating “Cougar Corners,” bookshelves with free reading material (mostly for children) that would be placed in waiting rooms around town.

“When we learned about the fact that if students aren’t proficient readers in third grade there are more challenges, and we saw data that said if kids see their parents reading then they are more likely to read and they can be reading together, we thought this was a great idea,” Bennett said.

Herring agreed.

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“We wanted to be part of increasing the literacy rate in Cedar Rapids and thought this was a really awesome opportunity,” she said.

“The purpose of our Cougar Corners is that when families are waiting in local waiting rooms they can pick up a book and read it together,” Bennett said. “They can borrow it and take it with them if they need. We definitely have a large supply of books to restock the bookshelves.”

Once the idea was formulated, the girls presented the idea to their fellow honor society members before deciding to move forward with the project and involve the entire senior class.

“It was fun sharing our idea with our classmates and seeing how excited they were. It made us feel good about it,” Herring said. “So we had students sign up for different committees like building the shelves, finding the books we needed and reaching out to businesses to participate.”

Students researched which type and size of bookshelf would be the best fit for the project. Other students visited local businesses to hand out informational pamphlets and gauge interest in hosting a Cougar Corner. Then Kennedy seniors held book drives throughout the year, including at home football games and at pep rally events at school, that pitted each class against one another to see which could gather the most book donations.

“That one pep rally brought in about 900 books, and we were very pleasantly surprised,” said Bennett.

As the end of the year approaches, the last couple of weeks have been crunchtime for assembling the shelves and getting books ready for distribution. Community members soon will see Cougar Corners pop up around town.

“We had the most success getting the Cougar Corners into health clinics and the Jane Boyd Community House,” Duffy said. “Our focus was on low-income areas because we know of the need there.”

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So far, students have secured 15 locations and are excited about the business community’s reception to their idea. They hope the program continues to grow and thank the library for helping them get it started and supporting it moving forward.

“I really enjoyed seeing how passionate people are about helping in our community,” Bennett added. “This project really confirmed how important our library is. And it was reassuring to see how warmly welcomed our project was by the community.”

The project aims to boost literacy citywide, but also taught students some valuable lessons on community impact.

“I enjoyed learning about this issue in our community,” Duffy said. “The statistics the library shared were staggering, and it was inspiring to be part of taking this on with the library. It definitely helped me learn how important communication is between each other, our NHS team, the seniors, the library and the community partners.”

“It feels so good to give back,” Herring added. “I really loved all the interactions we had with our class and the library. This taught me a lot about not being afraid to dive in and take charge.”

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