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Slowing the slump: summer literacy programs get kids reading

Girl choosing books from shelf
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DuRonica Farmer will be entering sixth grade this fall. She began this summer reading at a third grade level.

According to Turn the Page KC, a literacy initiative started by Kansas City, Mo. Mayor Sly James, around 80 percent of Kansas City kids are behind when it comes to reading.

For kids with few books at home or no enriching activities to do during summer break, three months away from school can mean that they end up further behind in the fall than they were in the spring.

In addition, that summer learning loss is cumulative. A 2007 study published in American Sociological Review estimated that “approximately two-thirds of the reading achievement gap by ninth grade could be attributed to summer learning loss in the first five years of schooling.”

Summer learning is one of the three major focus areas of Mayor Sly James’ Turn the Page KC initiative, which is partnering with over 50 community organizations to get every child in Kansas City reading on grade level by third grade.

“Why should there be two and half to three months of nothing right in the middle of your educational year? What exactly does that accomplish?” James said. “When we have children in this city, in certain schools or certain school districts that are behind already, they’re not going to catch up that way.”

Upper Room is one of the initiative’s summer learning partners. The have 21 sites in churches and elementary schools in eastern Kansas City where kids in grades one through eight spend their days reading and taking quizzes that gauge their reading comprehension.

“So far we’re seeing exponential growth,” said Gregory Smith, who is the site director for the Upper Room’s program at Jameson Memorial Temple. “We’re moving kids from second grade to third grade and from second to fourth.”

The Kansas City Freedom School Initiative, which has been providing summer enrichment in Kansas City’s urban core for 19 years, has seen similar gains with their students.

“We prevent the summer lag and in fact we show gains,” said Rev. Darren Faulkner, who is the CEO and Executive Director of the Kansas City Freedom Schools Initiative. “For a third grader that is reading at pre-primmer or pre-k level by the time they get to sixth grade if they continue on the progress they were on they will still be at a third grade level. But if they’re with us for those three years, we can bring them up to grade level by sixth grade.”

To figure out what works best when it comes to summer learning, Turn the Page KC has commissioned the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium to collect reading scores from its summer learning partners as well as school districts, which benchmark students’ reading skills with tests in the spring and fall.

According to the consortium’s executive director Leigh Anne Taylor Knight, analyzing the results presents challenges given that school districts and summer learning programs use a variety of curricula and assessments to gauge students’ reading level.

“We’re having to cluster groups of students from different programs and schools together based on what we do have,” Knight said. “That will be the other thing that will be informative from this first round of work is just to have an environmental scan on what’s being used.”

Although wrangling the data of the various reading assessments will be no small feat, Knight says it will lay the foundation for tracking literacy rates citywide. And it will provide a clearer picture of the impact of summer learning programs in KC. So far, the results are positive.

“We see that some [summer learning partners] are mitigating that issue of summer learning loss and some actually may not only just be leveling the playing field but some students may be growing over the summer,” Knight said.

For students like DuRonica, those gains can be dramatic. According to the Upper Room, where she has read 133 books and 385,401 words, she’s made an entire school year’s worth of progress in just six weeks.

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