Rethinking Summer Learning: How Dallas Public Library Increased Its Impact

SMART Summer LogoMany public libraries are transitioning to a “summer learning” rather than “summer reading” program model. Dallas Public Library (DPL) in Texas recognized this change but was resistant to giving up its signature high-profile Mayor’s Summer Reading Challenge. At the same time, library staff knew they wanted to provide learning opportunities and programming that went beyond reading.

While developing a three-year strategic vision and plan to be implemented in 2017 though 2019, DPL staff identified a key area for impact: providing kids with opportunities to develop 21st century skills through library programs. This key focus area became known as SMART Kids.

The goal of SMART Kids is to connect youth with opportunities that inspire curiosity in science, math, art, reading, and technology through library programs and partnerships. Library staff knew that out-of-school time was when the library could have the biggest impact, especially during summer. So out of that focus came the rebranded SMART Summer, which encompasses the Mayor’s Summer Reading Challenge as well as a variety of programs, events, and activities around the other four subject areas.

Making the Change to Summer Learning

Take Apart CampTransitioning their program to SMART Summer didn’t mean changing the summer programming structure as much as it meant changing how staff approached programming, as well as how they talked about it with parents and stakeholders. The reading program portion needed to be easy to understand for parents and support staff because more of the librarians’ time would be taken up with developing and presenting programs. Staff simplified the reading goals to 20 minutes per day, with incentive prizes for every 10 days tracked. The incentives now include books as well as passes and coupons to other Dallas institutions such as museums and the zoo. The bulk of the fundraising for the traditional part of the program, the Mayor’s Summer Reading Challenge, is handled by the mayor’s office.

A committee of DPL librarians now creates 10 to 12 program kits each summer. The kits include supplies and plans for deeper engagement and learning in STEM. They also follow a template to ensure they are creating programs with intention, focusing on the learning goals of each program.

Stop Motion CampOnce the kits are planned, the list gets shared with the branch librarians and each branch chooses four that they will implement during the summer. The supplies are ordered and the kits created centrally and sent out to the 29 branches.

Each branch also has designated funds to hire performers. Community partners like local museums and theater groups provide programs at no cost. A list of the performers in the area along with reviews and cost information is maintained by the DPL Youth Services office to make the planning process easier.

Make a Bigger Impact with Your Summer Programming

Learn how your library can boost excitement and reach a wider audience by making the switch to a summer learning program.

Looking Ahead

Dallas Public Library youth services librarians are working on changing how they think and talk about summer. While they won’t lose sight of reading as a focus, they are including other kinds of learning topics when they talk to patrons and other stakeholders. The goal of the summer learning program is to continue to encourage reading for pleasure and also exploration and discovery in other areas.

At the end of each summer, a parent survey is sent out for feedback about the program. Over the past three years, DPL has received consistently positive feedback from parents and caregivers, and SMART programs have been well attended. All staff, not just youth services, are included in a debrief on the findings of the survey. The information is used to determine the strategy and any changes for the following year. Survey results are also shared with key stakeholders, such as the Friends group and mayor’s office.

To learn more about SMART Summer at Dallas Public Library, check out their website.


Erin Hoag

Erin Hoag

Erin Hoag is the Learning Content Manager at Demco. She has a master’s in library and information studies with a focus on child and youth services. For over 10 years, she has worked in informal education, developing and running programs in museums, libraries, and community centers.