A year ago, the Duluth Library Foundation set its No. 1 goal at closing the opportunity gap for school readiness in Duluth. Everything was going smoothly and they were set to host a community summit to create a strategic plan, and then the pandemic hit.

Duluth Library Foundation Executive Director Patra Sevastiades said the library has launched a citywide, library-led school readiness initiative to address a problem identified in a 2015 community survey, conducted by the library.

“So the library took all that feedback and created a strategic planning group,” Sevastiades said. “The single goal that came head and shoulders above all the rest, identified by the community, was school readiness.”

In October 2019, Sevastiades said, the foundation launched a fundraising campaign to help prepare every child in the city for school. They scheduled a March 28 summit for community members and stakeholders to create a specific school readiness strategic plan. But that week everything was shut down.

“The library had to pivot really quickly and they came up with a different approach, which is to come up with a creative brain trust of local leaders,” Sevastiades said. “They came up with a draft strategic plan and then reached out to small groups virtually.”

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Those groups were the same people who were going to attend the summit in March. Sevastiades said they are close to finishing the strategic plan, which was improved based on the feedback, and they have reached out to a consultant.

“It’s being evaluated so that as they finalize the strategic plan they can make sure it will not only make a difference but can measure the impact,” she said.

The Duluth Library hosted a story walk at Lester Park Friday, Oct. 16. The interactive story "Animal Action ABC" by Karen Pandell asked readers to mimic actions animals make. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
The Duluth Library hosted a story walk at Lester Park Friday, Oct. 16. The interactive story "Animal Action ABC" by Karen Pandell asked readers to mimic actions animals make. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

In the meantime, the library has been trying to find ways to connect with the community and provide support for children and families, said Carmella Hatch, early literacy librarian. While it's been closed this summer, the library has been hosting virtual storytime for babies and toddlers, and delivering boxes of free books and crafts to support organizations that work with needy families.

One of the biggest programs the library put on during the summer and into the fall is Story Strolls, where families and kids can walk through a park reading large laminated book pages, on loan from the Arrowhead Library System. At the end they receive a craft and a free book. Hatch said the library was partnering with the Duluth parks department to host in-person, storytime-in-the-park events, but due to COVID-19, they came up with the new creative idea.

“We’ve been using the pandemic time to really try to make sure that we’re building a strong plan. We’re creating more partnerships throughout the community, and just trying to get books and other engaging activities in the hands of kids and families,” Hatch said.

The Story Strolls were held once a month in different parks across the city. The next Story Strolls are scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 4 at Cascade Park, Nov. 5 at Lincoln Park and Nov. 7 at Washington Square.

Hatch said the library has also been trying to think of ways to include community members who don’t have access to the internet but have access to a phone. They recently launched a Dial-a-Story program. Anyone with a phone can dial 218-626-6500 and then choose options from the menu to hear a story. There are youth chapter books uploaded by chapter as well as children's books.

Since the start of the school readiness initiative last year, the Duluth Library Foundation has raised $175,765 with $90,000 coming from local foundations and $85,765 from individuals.

Sevastiades encourages anyone who is interested in donating to visit duluthlibraryfoundation.org or call 218-730-4262 or mail a check to 520 W. Superior St., Duluth MN 55802.

Any individual donation will be matched up to $5,000 by Karen and Royal Alworth, who have pledged to match individual gifts up to a total of $100,000.