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County Library Improves Reading Skills of Incarcerated Teens

Press Release

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 - 10:00a.m.
St. Louis County Library (SLCL) has partnered with the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center in an effort to improve the reading skills of incarcerated teens.
SLCL sends paperback books to the detention center, which teens can read in their spare time. The option to read gives them something to do in addition to watching TV, hanging out or playing sports. They are also allowed to take the books to their locked rooms, so right before bed time at 9:00 p.m., they ask for permission to get a book.
“Every single kid, every single night,” says Tremell Jones in response to a question about how many of the teens ask for permission to get a book now that the library has enlarged their choices. Jones is the Detention Center’s Program Coordinator, and as such, spends many hours with the teens.
The St. Louis County Juvenile Detention houses an average of 38 kids, ages 11-17. Most read below grade level, some as low as second grade level. Increasing their reading time improves their reading skills as well as their interest in reading. The staff and other residents also benefit, since someone who is engrossed in a book is not causing or participating in disputes.
“In many cases, youth in detention struggle with reading and while they are in detention, they have more time to devote to it than usual.  However, access to age appropriate, interesting materials is severely limited,” says Colleen Hall, the manager of Outreach Services for the library.  “The lack of appropriate materials is something the library can help with.”
Library staff have also volunteered to weed the detention center’s own collection of outdated, worn out or inappropriate titles. (Among the books on the shelf recently was “Little Women,” a classic Civil War era novel loved and read mostly by tween girls.)
Until recently, all the paperbacks sent to the center were deleted items from SLCL’s 20 branches. In May, the library received a grant to enhance the variety of reading material provided. Better World Books approved the library’s Literacy and Education in Action Program (LEAP) grant application for 2,500 paperbacks and $1,500 for shelving and shipping of the material.
John Snipes is the Assistant Superintendant of the detention center. He is well aware of the challenges faced by teens who have never been strong readers.
“Not being able to read well causes the kids to make some bad educational decisions. If there’s a teacher who makes them read aloud in front of the class, they cut that class so as not to be humiliated,” says Snipes.
Even though the relationship between the library and the detention center is new, there are some positive results already. This is the first time some of the kids have read a book cover-to-cover.
The kids go to school in the detention center every weekday, but the materials they use cannot leave the school area. The St. Louis County Library’s involvement has greatly increased the reading outlook for these teens.
In addition to delivering paperbacks and weeding unusable material, the library has developed a way for the teens to participate in the annual Summer Reading Club. The kids respond well to rewards, even small ones like a bag of chips, so the Summer Reading Club is perfect for them. The library is also working on starting a book discussion group. It’s difficult, because many of the youth remain in the detention center for only a short period of time. 
For more information about the partnership between SLCL and the County Juvenile Detention Center, please contact Jennifer McBride at 314-994-3300.