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Summer reading programs help narrow the gap

Nearly a quarter of students aren't proficient in reading in third grade

Jun 26, 2017 at 10:10 am
    An Arthur Elementary third-grader reads to herself during a class at the Cedar Rapids school. The Iowa Department of Education reports 23.1 percent of third-graders are not proficient in reading, a situation the Iowa Legislature attempted to address with mandatory summer school or by having students repeat third grade. That effort was abandoned, though, given state funding cuts. Sixty-five percent of Iowa schools and not-for-profits have programs aimed at preventing a “summer slide” in reading and math. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    Somewhere between the daily reading instruction, math and fun activities that included watermelon seed estimating, sidewalk chalking and swimming at Cedar Rapids’ Ellis Pool, Josh Schminky caught up with his peers in school.

    “At the beginning of the school year, I noticed a real turnaround with his behavior and reading and math,” said Cassie Vincent, mother to Josh, a rising fifth-grader at Van Buren Elementary School in Cedar Rapids. “It’s been going up and up. He’s on level for math now.”

    That’s the goal of summer learning programs: Help struggling children gain ground, not lose it, over the warm weather months.


    “Summer is an important time for students to be engaged in literacy activities, especially if they already are experiencing difficulties with reading,” according to Deborah Reed, director of the Iowa Reading Research Center at the University of Iowa. “Being away from structured learning opportunities, such as a summer reading program, seems to disadvantage the students who can least afford to grow more slowly than their peers.”

    Students who aren’t reading up to grade level by the end of third grade may struggle later to glean what they need from school.

    “The vocabulary gets bigger, and there’s less time dedicated for reading,” Reed said. “Summer is another opportunity to provide intervention.”

    Of more than 33,700 Iowa third-graders who took the Iowa Assessment in 2015-16, 23.1 percent were not proficient in reading. In a broader assessment designed to catch non-proficient readers and students at risk for reading difficulties, nearly one-third of Iowa students in kindergarten through third grades failed to meet benchmarks in spring 2016.

    These statistics pushed the Iowa Legislature in 2012 to pass an early literacy law that required schools, starting in 2014, to test all students in kindergarten through third grade three times a year for reading difficulties.

    “Expecting that a six-week summer program would overcome three to four years (of deficiencies) is a pretty big task...In many respects, maintaining is probably a laudable outcome.”

    - Deborah Reed

    Director, Iowa Reading Research Center at the University of Iowa


    For students identified as persistently at risk, schools must notify parents, provide intervention and monitor students’ progress weekly to assess the effects of intervention.

    The more controversial part of the law would have kicked in next spring. Students with a reading deficiency at the end of third grade would have been required to complete a summer reading program or repeat third grade. Many educators had concerns holding kids back hurts the students’ long-term learning outcomes.

    But ultimately it didn’t matter because Iowa didn’t have the money to pay for mandatory summer school.

    One of the reasons lawmakers gave in April for scrapping the summer reading initiative was an Iowa Reading Research Center study (PDF) that didn’t show significant growth for rising fourth-graders who participated in voluntary summer reading programs in 2016. The summer programs did show some improvement for students overall, just not enough to reach reading benchmarks.

    “Expecting that a six-week summer program would overcome three to four years (of deficiencies) is a pretty big task,” Reed said. “In many respects, maintaining is probably a laudable outcome.”

    Summer programs vary

    Sixty-five percent of Iowa school districts had some type of summer reading program in 2015, the Iowa Department of Education reported. However, the number of students who can be served and the length and quality of the programs is variable — with many of the most-successful programs relying on private money.

    Council Bluffs, a western Iowa district of 9,188 students last fall, expects to serve more than 1,000 children in pre-K through grade 12 this summer in programs largely paid for by the Iowa West Foundation, a Council Bluffs-based not-for-profit funded by local casinos.

    “We’re competing with vacations, summer camps and sports...It’s our job to make our program just as fun and exciting.”

    - Corey Vorthmann

    Council Bluffs assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction


    Council Bluffs students who qualify for the summer learning program get free busing and meals. The annual budget is about $650,000 — funded without taxes.

    The seven-week program includes three hours per day of intense literacy instruction at the elementary level, including 30 minutes of individual instruction. Afternoon activities include field trips to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo — a program sponsor — museums and other community partners.

    “We’re competing with vacations, summer camps and sports,” said Corey Vorthmann, Council Bluffs assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “It’s our job to make our program just as fun and exciting.”

    Iowa City, with nearly 14,000 students in the district last fall, will serve about 250 students finishing grades 1-3 in the summer reading program, offered at seven elementary schools. Officials would like to enroll more struggling students, but grants and early literacy funding is limited and Iowa City has no major corporate sponsors, said Joan Vandenberg, Iowa City’s youth and family development director.

    “We’re trying to get a little more creative with private partnerships,” she said.

    Iowa City’s program piggybacks on summer camps offered by before- and after-school programs. For each school in the program, the district provides full scholarships to 30 students reading below proficiency. Those students get to come to camp all summer — but for about 20 days starting after July 4, there is three hours of reading instruction each day.

    When they’re not in tutoring, students participate in other camp activities, including going to the pool twice a week and all-day field trips on Fridays.

    Piecing together funding

    Josh Schminky, 10, and his sister, Isabella, 8, are excited to be spending their summer in Cedar Rapids Kids on Course University, which will serve about 900 students going into grades 1 through 5 in 15 elementary schools. Cedar Rapids’s total enrollment was 16,800 last fall.


    “I’m doing science,” Isabella said as she sorted piles of sand, rocks, grass and leaves to show what makes up soil.

    The rising third-grader and three classmates planted corn, with AmeriCorps’ Nathan Spalding showing them how to stick the seed down a “farmer’s inch,” which is a little past the first knuckle on a child. Later in the summer, the students will harvest lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and other vegetables growing in the school garden.

    Kids on Course University is open to children who don’t pass at least one reading proficiency test in the previous school year. Students get 90 minutes of reading instruction, 90 minutes of math and 40 minutes guided enrichment — such as the gardening session — each day during the seven-week summer program. All instructors are certified teachers.

    “The idea is to engage the students in what they are interested in,” said Amy Evans, instructional design strategist for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. “We rely on the teachers to come up with ideas.”

    The program, which is free for students, including meals and busing, costs $960,000 a year. Organizers piece funding together from sources that include federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, which support academic and enrichment activities after school hours; the Cedar Rapids-based Zach Johnson Foundation; and other grants and donations.

    An additional grant allowed Kids on Course to open the school libraries in the summer and Diamond V, an animal nutrition company in Cedar Rapids, is paying for bags of food to go home with students on weekends, said Beth Malicki, Kids on Course program leader, Zach Johnson Foundation board member and KCRG-TV9 news anchor.

    “We’re working on a grant to buy the kids swim clothes and sunscreen,” she said, adding that last summer many children didn’t have swimsuits for pool outings.

    Measuring summer success

    If Iowa lawmakers weren’t impressed with the 2016 pilot study done by the Iowa Reading Research Center, how do educators prove the importance of summer school to secure future state funding?


    Programs don’t always collect apples-to-apples data, but Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City all found students improved overall last summer.

    The 89 Council Bluffs third-graders who participated in a study last summer raised their average reading scores seven points during the summer program and gained in reading speed and accuracy. This wasn’t enough to reach proficiency, but it narrowed the gap between these students and their on-level peers.

    Iowa City first-graders who received summer tutoring last year showed 17 percent growth in the Formative Assessment System for Teachers (FAST) test over the course of the summer, said Amy Minteer, director of extended day learning for the district. Second-graders improved 6 percent over the summer, and third-graders maintained.

    Nearly 60 percent of all Kids on Course University students last summer increased their reading scores, while 89 percent increased scores or lost fewer than eight points. More than three-quarters of the students increased math skills over last year’s six-week program.

    State Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, chairman of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said there were too many unanswered questions and too little money to approve funding for the early literacy initiative this year.

    “We didn’t have time to dig in and say, ‘What are we going to do with the children not reading proficiently or who aren’t at a level we deem acceptable?,’” he said.

    Kraayenbrink wants Iowa educators to figure out how to increase attendance at summer programs and choose a test for all school districts to use for judging reading proficiency. He’d also like to have more certainty summer reading programs are going to return appreciable results.

    “We want to get the biggest bang for our spending and move these children forward,” he said.

    Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, doesn’t think it’s likely the Republican-controlled Legislature will find extra money for education next year. But he knows the quarter of Iowa students who aren’t reading up to proficiency will fall further behind without intervention.

    “If not summer reading, what?” Bolkcom said. “What can we do to make it better?”

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    10 fun ways to avoid summer slide

    Research suggests children’s reading progress slows down during the summer. It’s no wonder with swimming, biking, lemonade stands and vacations competing for time.

    Avoiding that summer slide can be easier — and more fun — than you think. With about six weeks left of summer break, check out these tips adapted from Scholastic, Little Scholars and Val Ehlers, a media specialist at the Gladbrook-Reinbeck Community School District.

    1. Read 15 to 20 minutes every day

    This can be anything from the weather or comics in the morning newspaper to fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, magazines, poetry or e-books. Research shows even six books of the appropriate reading level, when read over the course of the summer, can keep a child on track.

    2. Sign up for a summer reading program

    Chances are your local public library has a summer reading program with rewards for books read over the summer. Many programs encourage different genres or include incentives for physical activity, which also declines over the summer months for many children. Some Iowa sports teams, such as the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Waterloo Bucks, also have summer reading programs.

    3. Cook with your kids

    This tasty activity combines math and reading, allowing children to explore their creativity and gain self-reliance. Let your child look through a cookbook, pick out a recipe and write a grocery list. Help your child compile some of his favorite recipes into a cookbook.

    4. Keep a journal

    Whether your child is recording progress of your family’s garden or the adventures of vacation, keeping a journal will encourage writing and provide a fun memento of the summer. Add photos, event tickets and museum brochures to make it a scrapbook.

    5. Build vocabulary — one word a week

    Pick a new word each week. Hang the word in the kitchen and see which family member can use it the most times.

    6. Enroll your child in a high-quality summer program

    There’s a camp or educational offering for just about every interest, from Legos and robots to drama and s’mores preparation. Some camps, such as the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois Camp Liberty, have a sliding scale based on income.

    7. Start a family book club

    Encourage family members — including siblings, parents, grandparents or cousins — to read the same book over the summer. Get together in person or by FaceTime or Skype to talk about the book. If the book was about canoeing, for example, consider taking a paddling trip as a family. Have the kids do a live performance of their favorite scene.

    8. Listen to audio books

    A trip from Cedar Rapids to South Dakota’s Black Hills takes more than nine hours — plenty of time to finish “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

    9. Read the book before watching the movie

    BuzzFeed reports on 19 books to read before they are released as movies in 2017. The list includes kid favorites “The Adventures of Captain Underpants,” by Dav Pilkey and “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio.

    10. Practice what you preach

    Whether it’s a light beach read or a classic you’ve been meaning to read since college, pick up a book this summer. You’ll show your children you value reading and maybe even rediscover your inner bookworm.

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