College Community School summer reading program shows promise

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Laura Columbus, guest columnist

The words “summer” and “learning” together might seem like a contradiction in terms, but summer is a critical time in a child’s life.

For many children, summer brings thoughts of splashing water, fun with friends, and later bed times. Many also attend camps, take vacations, or attend community events. Unfortunately, not all children are able to engage in these fun and enriching activities. These children often experience a phenomenon referred to as summer slide, or losing ground academically during the summer. Research shared by the National Summer Learning Association states that low-income children lose two to three months in reading skills during the summer months, while their higher-income peers often improve their skills. Even if both students progress equally during the school year, this summer loss can add up to a two-and-a-half year difference by fifth grade.

So, what can we do? We may not be able to send every child to camp, but College Community School District may have found another answer. This is their third summer conducting a program for struggling readers based on a model developed by Dr. Richard Allington, professor of Education at The University of Tennessee. Allington’s model calls for three parts of a summer reading program:

Access — provide children access to free books, at or slightly above their reading level.

Choice — allow children to select their own books. An adult might provide guidance, but the decision is in the children’s hands.

Support — communicate with children and encourage them to keep reading throughout the summer.

Costs for this program are minimal and include books, postage, and a small stipend for the facilitator, the cost at College Community is only $75 per student. Results, after just two years, show that participants are more likely to increase their reading skills during the summer than their peers who qualified but did not participate in the program.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District learned about College Community’s program through Reading into Success — a local collaboration between United Way, the Community Foundation, local school districts, non-profits, and others. Reading into Success aims to have 95 percent of third-graders reading proficiently by 2020, with a focus on closing the opportunity gap. A member of the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, Reading into Success follows one of its key recommendations to first look at expanding or replicating successful local programs before creating something new. The College Community program is one of these successful programs.

In a Cedar Rapids elementary school, 41 struggling readers in kindergarten through second grade are participating in a pilot this summer. The students attended a book fair on May 16, where they selected 10 new books and received a journal so they can capture their reading adventures on paper. They were excited to choose books, and one student asked if she really had to wait until summer to start reading! Throughout the summer, students receive personal messages from the facilitator, encouraging them to keep reading, writing, and drawing in their journal.

The school will collect data this fall regarding participants’ reading skills before and after summer. Recognizing the model calls for three years of participation to see a significant gain in skills, program leaders hope to see a modest increase after the first year.

Reading into Success plans to explore opportunities to expand the program to additional schools and school districts next summer. Programs like these mean students leave school in the spring, continue reading and learning during summer break, and return to school in the fall ready to start where they left off. Can a few books and notecards really do that much? It seems so, as one student told the facilitator, “Do you know, you just made my summer awesome!”

Follow Reading into Success to find out the results this fall when the students return to school at

• Laura Columbus, of Cedar Rapids, is the Education Initiatives Coordinator at United Way of East Central Iowa. Comments or questions:

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