Summer Reading – A Model in Richmond, Indiana
By Mike McGrath
I’m trying to remember when I made the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” a critical developmental stage for children. Education experts agree, third grade is a turning point for most students, a time when successful learners make that transition. Kids who don’t achieve grade level reading by fourth grade are likely to lose more and more ground in coming years.
I’m not sure which year it was for me—second grade, third grade—but I think it was when I started reading a series of little orange biographies about famous figures in American history. I remember in particular a biography of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” a guerilla leader in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. If memory serves, his biography may have sparked my imagination because there was a Disney version on TV starring the late great Canadian actor, Leslie Neilsen.
“In addition to improving their reading, these kids have come to experience the joy of learning and discovery,” he notes, “and that doesn’t always occur in a traditional classroom environment.”
Later on I was disillusioned to discover that Marion’s heroic exploits may have been exaggerated by the notorious colonial era hagiographer Parson Weems (Et tu Zorro?) but the point here is reading. Once a kid discovers the pleasures of reading, as I did with those little orange biographies, it opens up all kinds of possibilities.
For many low income kids, however, summer break poses a particular problem. Unless kids are either inclined to read (or encouraged to read by their parents) summer break can further the appalling gap that often develops between the reading skills of low income students and more affluent learners.
Taking this challenge to heart, two businessmen in Richmond, Indiana, decided to organize a summer “Third Grade Reading Academy” for 100 underachieving readers a year. The idea hit a responsive chord in the community, which ponied up $150,000 in contributions ranging from $10 to $20,000.
Originally, the plan was to hold the academy at local middle school. It was teachers who nixed the idea. “Kids don’t really look forward to going back to school in the summer,” notes Vic Jose, one of the founders, “so we sort of decentralized the academy to a variety of different locations.”
Classes have been held at the local historical museum, a swimming pool, a wellness center, a public library and a university athletic center to break up the monotony. The decision made logistics such as transportation and insurance against liability a little more complicated, but the founders think it was worth the trouble.
“We try to make it fun as well as educationally rigorous,” says Jose, a retired businessman and former school board member. “Attendance has always been over 90 percent, which compares well to the 50 to 70 percent rate for regular summer school programs.”
Just to be on the safe side though, the academy created a volunteer auxiliary of “Good Shepherds, who are on call during the summer session to track down students (or their parents) who don’t show up for class.
The results have been impressive. Students who attend the four-week program have raised the reading scores by 50 percent, but there are also intangible benefits, says Steve Borchers, executive director of the Wayne County Community Foundation. “In addition to improving their reading, these kids have come to experience the joy of learning and discovery,” he notes, “and that doesn’t always occur in a traditional classroom environment.”
Plus there is the satisfaction of succeeding and being recognized for it. Every year, the academy holds a celebration at the Civic Hall Performing Arts Center to give medals and certificates to the kids who complete the academy. “Everybody wants the parents to get more involved and nobody can quire figure it out,” says Vic Jose, “When we do the celebration day, Civic Hall is filled with parents. Some have to take a take off time from jobs to get there, but they are going to be when they know their child is going to be given that recognition.”
In 2009, Richmond won an All-America City Award from the National Civic League for outstanding civic accomplishments. The Third Grade Reading Academy was one of the successful local programs highlighted in their application for the award.
Jointly funded by the school district now, the academy is in its fourth year, and word of its success has spread. Two communities in Canada are now using it as a model for their summer reading programs, although they are using a different name, the Reading University. “They can call it anything they want to,” says Vic Jose, “as long as they are helping third graders reach their potential.”
The National Civic League announced Wednesday, June 15, at the All-America City Awards in Kansas City, that it was joining ranks with the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a national effort to close the gap in reading achievement that separates many low income students from their peers. In 2012, the All-America City Award will have a special focus on communities that mobilize to improve grade level reading. Read more about it by visiting www.allamericacityaward.com. Link here for information on the Campaign for Grade Level Reading.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.