The summer slide—the learning loss that occurs when students are not engaging in educational activities during summer vacation—has been a challenge for educators and parents for many years, and its existence is backed up by a solid body of research amassed over the better part of a century. Recently, researchers have focused on the fact that lower-income students suffer a significantly greater summer slide than more affluent students. According to stats from the National Summer Learning Association, low-income students lose two to three months of reading during the summer while kids from higher income families are found to make small gains, and by fifth grade, lower-income kids’ summer learning loss can put them two and a half to three years behind their peers. Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University who conducted some of the summer-slide research, says, “It’s a problem of monumental proportions.”
Librarians, teachers, and publishers have long been on the front lines when it comes to developing ways to combat summer slide and help close the achievement gap. But a variety of factors has meant that their efforts have not always met with measurable success. “Typically, we defer to the public library when it comes to summer reading,” says Suzanna Panter, former educational specialist of library services for Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia (who begins a new position as instructional facilitator for teacher-librarians in the Tacoma, Wash., public schools later this summer). “But we are not seeing the impact of these programs when the children return to school,” she says. “We can’t make the kids go.”
And as Panter notes, even if children are motivated to participate in a summer-reading program, there are often circumstances that prevent them from doing so, especially in lower-income areas. For instance, children may not live close to a public library, or they may not have a way to get to a library due to a lack of public transit, or because their parents or guardians are working and cannot take them. And in some cases, working parents don’t allow children to leave the house unsupervised during the summer. These factors came into play in Panter’s district a few years ago. “We used to open the school libraries for four hours a day,” she says. “But nobody came.”
Schools Get Creative
Individual schools and districts across the country have implemented their own summer-reading strategies over the years with varying degrees of success. Lori Donovan, instructional specialist of library services for Chesterfield County Public Schools in Chesterfield, Va., says that in years past, programs in her district have focused on providing access to books, especially for the most at-risk children, and have included elementary school principals creating personal bookmobiles (sometimes their own vehicle) to distribute free books in neighborhoods near their schools over the summer, as well as six of the high schools allowing kids to take home five to 10 library books over the break. Both ideas have been hits. Two elementary school bookmobiles, funded by federal funds and private donations, gave away nearly 600 books over a three-month period in 2014, and one high school that has been doing summer lending for 11 years reports that it has lost only four books during that time.
Outside of school, community partnerships with faith-based organizations and outreach efforts from the public library have helped alert teens and disenfranchised readers to materials and learning opportunities available to them. “If you haven’t been successful at reading, it can be very intimidating to walk into a library,” Donovan says. (In the summers of 2014 and 2015, CCPS teamed up with the Washington Redskins NFL team for a K–8 reading program. Though students logged millions of reading minutes, the lack of incentives for reluctant readers and the limited appeal to students who are not football fans led CCPS to end the partnership.)
But this summer, the Chesterfield County Public Schools are instituting a new district-wide summer-reading program, spearheaded by Donovan, that is innovative in both its size and scope. “In our district comprehensive plan, which is a fluid document, we wanted to establish a literacy strand that included a comprehensive K–12 summer-reading program,” she explains. Work on drafting the plan began in 2013, in partnership with the local public library system, and incorporated well-documented research about summer slide. To concretize the value of the plan, CCPS students in grades three to eight participated in a study with the State Library of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Education. The results showed that over a three-year span, students who participated in a summer-reading program performed better on standardized reading tests than students who did not take part in summer-reading programs.
However, improving test scores is not the primary goal for CCPS. “Our two main goals are, first, that students belong to a community of readers who value lifelong reading habits and, second, that they participate in the summer-reading plan to establish those lifelong reading habits and literacy skills,” Donovan says. Preventing the achievement gap among students falls in line with this strategy. “If you can close the gap at the emergent-reading stage, you are not constantly playing catch-up,” she adds.
Each of the 61 schools in Donovan’s district was challenged to design its own plan, including an individual theme, to “implement, sustain, communicate, and celebrate summer reading” and best meet the needs of its community. “We brought in literacy specialists and specially trained librarians and teachers to help schools create a tool kit of ideas to use, too,” Donovan says. Proposals were submitted to Donovan’s office, and each school was given $1,500 in aid from the Chief Academic Office to get its plan off the ground. Some schools are allotting the money to keep the school library open for certain hours over the summer (and pay the librarian); others are purchasing additional books or materials.
In continued partnership with CCPS, the nine branches of the Chesterfield County Public Library will offer expanded programming that highlights different themes of summer learning with some connection to STEAM, e.g. astronomy, geography, music. The district-wide program kicked off with a CCPS Night at the Library event on June 7, and will conclude on August 30 with another. Throughout, students will attempt to reach a goal of reading 1,000 minutes each, and “accountability is built into it,” Donovan notes. Children will be able to keep track via Bingo/Read-O cards and old-fashioned print reading logs, as well as electronically through such online educational platforms as Edmodo and Google Forms. In addition to the public library’s resources, students have access to the district’s electronic collection through the MackinVia platform. Incentives at various milestones include trinkets from a prize box for younger children; for the older kids, tickets entered in a raffle for bigger prizes such as movie tickets or e-readers. In September the student summer reading logs will be collected and tallied, and schools will hold end-of-the-program celebrations. “We are very excited,” Donovan says. “The plans I read were really creative; people were really thinking outside the box.”
On a broader scale, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which is part of the State Board of Education, launched a statewide effort in 2013 called Give Five Read Five. The brainchild of state superintendent June Atkinson, the initiative was designed to help local districts reduce summer learning loss. Each year, parents and community and business leaders are asked to donate five new or gently used children’s books to their elementary schools so that students can have five books to take home over the summer and keep. The program hinges on the number five because a Harvard research study showed that reading that many books helps students better retain their skills during summer break.
In its first year, 74 schools collected more than 123,000 books, and in 2015, more than 276 participating schools and other community groups collected and distributed almost 547,000 books. Various national and North Carolina companies and organizations also partner on the Give Five Take Five project, including Myon, a division of Capstone, and Book Harvest, a nonprofit that provides books to low-income children in central North Carolina and runs its own Books on Break program, which provides a new string backpack and 10 books (selected by recipients) to elementary students who are on free or reduced lunch.
This year, the new partnership with Myon is enabling the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to offer every student in the state summertime access to Myon Reader, the company’s personalized electronic literacy tool. The top four schools collecting the most books for Give Five Take Five in 2016 (by June 17) will win a free one-year school-wide license to online literacy tools provided by Myon, Achieve3000, and Reading Horizons.
In Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., the nonprofit Springboard Collaborative partners with schools to tackle the reading achievement gap by coaching the district’s existing teachers, involving families, and offering incentives (books, school supplies, and tablets) to help students in pre-K through third grade reach reading goals. The five-week Springboard Summer program is a blend of home visits, daily instruction by students’ school-year teachers, and weekly family workshops. In 2014, the 1,200 students participating achieved an average 3.4-month gain in reading level.
School’s Out Washington offers guidance and provides services that enable organizations to create “quality after-school, youth-development, and summer programs” for kids in that state, ages five to 18. The group’s Feed Your Brain project specifically provides funding to “schools, community-based organizations, and tribes running summer-learning programs in rural areas of Washington State” so that they can combat summer learning loss and summertime hunger (providing food for students who are missing out on free or reduced lunch because school is not in session), another critical issue in lower-income communities.
On the national level, the National Summer Learning Association continues to help cities and states spread the word about the importance of providing summer-learning opportunities for children by leading Summer Learning Day (July 14 this year), a national day of advocacy. NSLA provides a tool kit for mayors to use in proclaiming Summer Learning Day in their city, and First Lady Michelle Obama created
a supportive video message for this effort last year. NSLA is encouraging use of the hashtags #KeepKidsLearning and #SummerLearning on social media.
President Obama’s administration supports the summer learning mission as well. In February, NSLA partnered with the White House and the U.S. Department of Education for the Summer Opportunity Project. The vision of this initiative is that by 2020 every city and town in the country will provide summer learning and employment opportunities as well as summer meals to all youth who qualify for free or reduced lunch. As part of the project, the Department of Labor awarded $21 million in Summer Jobs and Beyond grants in 11 communities, and the White House named 16 Summer Impact Hubs in such communities as Flint and Detroit, Mich.; Los Angeles; and Jonesboro, Ark., which are slated to receive federal interagency support for learning, meals, and violence-reduction programs. The Open eBooks initiative and e-reader app, first announced in spring 2015 and launched in February of this year, is one of the federal agency commitments to the Summer Opportunity Project. Apart from the Project, in 2015, states introduced more than 175 bills that recommend statewide summer-learning opportunities.
Public Libraries on Their Marks
Public libraries have been the go-to providers of summer reading programs in communities nationwide for decades. Librarians have excelled at creating customized, often incentivized, ways to connect kids and books and stoke reading enjoyment and achievement. As a result, libraries often receive support in these efforts from local and outside sources. For more than 20 years, the Collaborative Summer Library Program—a consortium of state libraries and systems—has been providing its member libraries (now totaling almost 15,000) with a unified summer-reading theme and accompanying professional art and supportive materials so that they can provide high-quality summer-reading programs to children at the lowest possible cost. In 2015, CSLP named two-time Newbery Medalist and former U.S. national ambassador for children’s literature Kate DiCamillo its first-ever National Summer Reading Champion to help spread the word about the importance of summer reading. This year, DiCamillo is reprising her role as a spokesperson for the program, which carries the theme On Your Mark, Get Set... Read! She kicked things off May 13 during a live webcast from Edgewood School in Woodridge, Ill., that was viewed by 50,000 students at 975 schools. She’s currently on a 20-city national tour for Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick, Apr.), her new novel, and at her various appearances she spreads her enthusiasm for libraries and summer reading.
With the help of corporate sponsors, American Library Association divisions YALSA and ALSC offer annual grants to bolster public library summer reading programs. YALSA’s Summer Learning Resources Grant, sponsored by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, awards $1,000 to each of 20 libraries to support summer-reading programs for teens. And the ALSC/Baker & Taylor Summer Reading Program Grant provides $3,000 to one library to encourage reading programs for children. Additionally, ALSC recently formed a Summer Reading and Learning Task Force to explore how the organization can fortify and expand its support of members’ work on summer programs.
Book publishers of every size are in step with providing summer reading support and frequently feature their titles with thematic book lists, promotions, and additional resources to encourage kids to flex their reading muscles over the school break (see “Strengthening Summer Reading,” p. 52, for examples). Scholastic has taken a leadership role on this front with its annual Summer Reading Challenge, a free online reading program designed to keep kids reading throughout the summer. The campaign is officially in its 10th year, but “the Challenge as it exists today has been around since 2009,” according to Sara Sinek, v-p of corporate communications at Scholastic. Launched on May 9, this year’s Challenge features the theme Be a Reading Superhero and wraps up September 9.
Throughout those 18 weeks, children will log their reading minutes and earn digital rewards for meeting various challenges and milestones, including unlocking first chapters of books in the Scholastic catalogue, and, via a new twist, unlocking the personal stories of 18 Scholastic authors who share their inspirational journey in pieces titled “How I Became a Reading Superhero.” Author-illustrator Dav Pilkey, creator of Captain Underpants, is the program’s Summer Reading Global Ambassador and has crafted a video message for kids about the importance—and fun—that summer reading holds. He also promoted the first-ever Dav Pilkey Be a Reading Superhero Contest for K–8 educators (March 21–April 11), with one school in each state winning the prize of one Scholastic book for every student in their school to jump-start their summer reading.
At the program’s end, the school in each U.S. state and territory (as well as in the District of Columbia) that has logged the most reading minutes will be named “Best in State” and featured in the 2017 Scholastic Book of World Records. By May 23, just three weeks into the program, kids nationwide had already racked up 30 million reading minutes. On the whole, according to Sinek, the Challenge is a way to “bridge school and home for students. It’s a solution that meets the needs of teachers, parents, and kids.”
Sinek says that a key component of the Challenge is to “get out into the community,” noting that the company continues to work with governor spouses (which Scholastic sought out specifically) in more than 40 states who have signed on to be Scholastic Summer Reading Ambassadors. “They host reading events in all kinds of different ways,” she says. To further expand community outreach and involvement, Scholastic is putting the pedal to the metal with the launch of the Summer Reading Road Trip. Two RVs are traveling the country, logging 10,000 highway miles between May 2 and July 31 and making stops at independent bookstores, libraries, and elementary schools in more than 25 cities, where they will host free reading festivals for kids and families. More than 50 events have been planned, and at least 100 Scholastic authors across the country are participating. According to Julie Amitie, executive director of marketing at Scholastic, “it’s been lots of fun so far.” She adds, “Each state has its own personality,” noting that some retailers even team up with other local partners, like a farmer’s market, for their events. The ripple effect continues with authors, as well. “It’s been great for kids to be able to interact with authors, and the authors have been so excited to participate,” Amitie says.
The passion among those who work to combat children’s summer learning loss is evident. And, unfortunately, statistics on resource disparities and rising poverty rates indicate that such passion is necessary, as educators and librarians must continue to create enriching, structured summer learning experiences for kids. But in the midst of these summer efforts, advocates say an instilled love of reading is never forgotten. DiCamillo’s CSLP Summer Reading Champion letter of encouragement to young readers offers a reminder: “Through stories, you can enter a new world and connect with others in your school, in your family, and across the country who are also reading,” she writes. “And when someone asks you what you did with your summer, you can proudly show them your reading log and tell them all about the great stories you experienced and all the heroes you met.”