Athletes as Readers and Leaders is the brainchild of a librarian, a varsity football coach, and an elementary school principal. The program was created in response to the Stanford Study, Team sports for overweight children: the Stanford Sports to Prevent Obesity Randomized Trial (SPORT). SPORT reported that obese students who played after school sports lost weight, but these same students often felt too shy to join an organized team. The three realized one way to overcome this shyness was to create a program that would encourage interaction between the high school athlete and the elementary student. They designed a simple plan with high school male and female athletes reading and interacting with the students. The visit also included a discussion about the importance of reading, awareness of nutrition and the necessity (and fun) of keeping physically fit.
In 2008, a group of nervous Napa High footballers spoke at West Park School. After the visit, students sent positive cards and letters to the athletes and coaches thanking them. The simple act of sharing a story and talking about physical activity and nutrition sent a message that resonated with the elementary students and was motivational for the high school athletes. With such a positive response, we knew Athletes as Readers and Leaders would be a successful way to create an open dialog about leadership, literacy, and wellness.
The program does require the athletes to read a picture book and discuss the importance of nutrition, wellness, literacy and physical activity. During the presentations, some high school athletes speak directly to the elementary students about their own lifestyle changes. We found it somewhat surprising that this familiarity can be a powerful motivator for change for both the student and the athlete. As the Napa High coach said, “I don’t know who gained more from this experience, the players or the kids.”
Although tracking elementary students’ diets or physical activity is beyond the scope of this program, the conversations between the athletes and the students indicate a new awareness and appreciation of a healthier lifestyle. At the same time, high school athletes are aware of the importance of serving as role models and volunteering to help their community. As an elementary principal said, “The Athlete as Readers and Leaders is a win-win program proving that education, wellness, and physical activity are important to every student!” Student and faculty responses show the connections made between the athletes and the younger students are sustained. To date over 4,000 elementary students from 15 elementary schools and over 350 high school athletes from Napa Valley USD have participated in the program. Even a simple program like this can make a huge difference by inspiring students to make healthy eating choices and become physically active.
Athletes as Readers and Leaders involves actual student athletes rather than professional stars to bring the important message of literacy, wellness, and physical fitness to our younger students. It fosters a love of learning and emphasizes scholarship and leadership. More importantly, the program provides realistic role models and goals to elementary students. It goes beyond most literacy and wellness programs by creating positive relationships through close interaction between high school athletes and elementary students.
The Athletes as Readers and Leaders has existed for over eight years and been cost efficient and easily sustainable. Apart from the minor transportation costs and the purchase of good sports story books, there are few additional costs. Since the high school athlete, the varsity coach and the librarian must be excused from campus to make the site visits, it is important that parents and administrations support the program. Usually this visit, including travel time, takes an hour and a half. There is some organization that is required to set up the visits and choose the athletes, but this is easily shared between the librarian and the coaches. (This program has been replicated throughout California and details can be found at the archived California School Library blog.)
As long as there are dedicated coaches, librarians and motivated student athletes, Athletes as Readers and Leaders will continue to be a step in the lifelong journey towards literacy, wellness, and physical fitness.
Author: Kate MacMillan
18 years as Coordinator of Library Services for Napa Valley USD and Napa Valley School Library Consortium; 2010-current CDE Recommended Literature Committee member; 8 years as an outside library consultant for Follett Library Resources; 6 years as a Napa County Library Commissioner; Current member of California Dept of Education’s Literature Committee; Napa TV Public Access board member; ALA, AASL, CLA (Californiia Library Association), CSLA (California School Library Association) and CUE (Computer Using Educators). Conference presentations include: United We Stand; School and Public Libraries Working Together (CLA 2016, CSLA 2017), It’s Not Your Mother’s Library 2012 and 2013 (CUE); Enhancing Online Resources through Library Partnerships (CUE 2010); Implementing School Library Consortium (CSLA 2008); Athletes as Readers and Leaders (2008 Association of American Publishers & CSLA Project). Contributor to School Libraries: What’s Now, What’s Next, What’s Yet to Come!