When “The Hunger Games” became the hottest ticket in town, about 350 middle school students in Fresno already knew how the movie would end.
They had spent the previous summer reading the post-apocalyptic book by Suzanne Collins that the movie was based on as part of Fresno County Office of Education’s efforts to keep kids reading after school is out.
“We want to be the leaders and not the followers in what we’re delivering to kids,” said Lori Carr, a consultant with the Safe and Healthy Kids Department at the Fresno County Office of Education. “We look for freshness, something new.”
Carr’s program is one of several across the state that are focusing on turning struggling readers into lifelong bookworms. With the demise of district–supported summer school during the past few years, these programs are trying to fill the gap, though they serve a small fraction of the state’s 6.2 million students. More than half of those students live in low-income families, making them particularly vulnerable to falling behind in school without extra support during the summer.
“Research has established that low-income students are disproportionately at risk to lose academic skills during the summer,” said the National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit based in Baltimore that works to make summer programs available to needy students. “While most children lose up to two months of math skills during summer breaks, lower-income children also lose two to three months of reading skills.”
That is why “Fun in the Sun,” a summer program run by United Way in Santa Barbara County, makes reading its highest priority, said Courtney Tarnow, coordinator of the program, which was one of three summer programs across the nation to receive an Excellence in Summer Learning award from the National Summer Learning Association.
“We know that science, technology, and math are extremely important,” Tarnow said. “But you can’t do your word problems if you’re not able to read.”
Three programs, described below, showcase the variety of approaches communities have taken to improve student literacy during the summer.
Fresno County Office of Education
Fresno’s program for middle school students aims to turn the video-game generation on to reading for pleasure. This year, Carr and her associates picked The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, a fantasy adventure based on Egyptian mythology. Like The Hunger Games, the book is one of a series by the same author, which is a way of encouraging students to find authors they like and continue to read on their own.
The Fresno community – including the county office of education – was recognized in June 2012 as a “pacesetter for its exemplary work to improve reading skills among young readers” by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that is dedicated to helping disadvantaged children.
The Fresno County Office of Education’s program for middle school students is one of 12 statewide demonstration communities chosen by the David & Lucile Packard Foundation to serve as incubators for innovative summer learning practices throughout the state. In addition, the foundation chose this program to participate in a summer research project and case study, which is scheduled to be published in the fall.
In the program, the class reads pages of the book out loud together for part of the time. At a specified point in the book, the teacher stops and asks students what they are thinking, do any of them have a prediction, and does the book remind them of something in their past or something they have learned. When students are reading independently, they are asked to write down their thoughts and later share them with a small group.
“We want them to fantasize and make pictures in their mind,” Carr said. “That’s when the fun begins. We can help these kids really enjoy literature if we introduce it in a fun and interactive way.”
The program also includes arts and crafts projects associated with the story. Students this summer made small mummies, catapults, and papyrus. The cost of the program is about $400 per student, and about 350 students participated this summer, she said. Grant funding covered most of the expenses. The program lasted for five weeks from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and included breakfast and lunch.
Carr looks for books that are not taught during the regular school year and are not regularly checked out of the school library, partly perhaps because of their length. The Red Pyramid is 528 pages.
“Most kids, especially those who struggle with reading, won’t pick up a book of that size,” she said.
Eric Hernandez, 11, who will be entering sixth grade in the fall, agreed he would have been unlikely to pick up a book the size of The Red Pyramid. The biggest book he had read before, he said, was 300-some pages long.
The Red Pyramid “was a very good book,” he said. “It taught me more about Egypt. I feel ready to tackle other books that big. The program made me like reading more.”
United Way of Santa Barbara County
United Way’s Fun in the Sun summer program for second grade through middle school students takes advantage of kids’ natural interest in video games. After doing extensive research into reading programs, the organization selected Reading Plus by Taylor Associates, an interactive program that “almost feels like a video game for the kids,” Tarnow said. They get immediate feedback and rewards. Unlike video games, however, the program adjusts to the students’ reading level, moving them to the next level and avoiding the frustration many students feel when they are assigned books they can’t comprehend. Many schools in Santa Barbara County use the program as well.
“It’s an online reading improvement tool that meets the kids at their individual level and challenges them to improve and increase their reading level,” she said. The program also has the ability to spot physical challenges that children might face, such as the inability of their eyes to easily track words from left to right. Another program called Lexia Reading helps younger students put letters and sounds together.
Based on feedback from the computer program, students who have completed all parts of the program (about 80 percent of all students) have grown, on average, more than two grade levels in reading, Tarnow said.
In addition, she said, throughout the day the children are reading books, writing in their journals, and doing research on the computer for a service project they develop and implement. This year, students organized beach litter pickups and created brochures educating the community about the impact of litter on the beach and what the public can do about it.
The program serves about 200 students recommended by family service agencies as most in need of academic support. It costs about $1,200 per student and is supported by a number of private companies in the area.
Sara Templeton, community impact coordinator for United Way of Santa Barbara County, said the program’s goal is to improve reading skills so that children can enjoy reading rather than see it as an unpleasant task. At the end of each summer, students and instructors have a party on the beach. At that party, she recalls seeing a young girl lying on a towel by herself, a Popsicle in one hand and a book in the other.
“And it wasn’t a picture book,” Templeton said.
Oakland Public Libraries
By noon on Tuesday in the first week in August, families were already in line waiting for the Cesar E. Chavez public library in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland to open at 12:30 p.m. When the doors opened, children and their mothers rushed in, heading up the stairs to the area where all kids 18 or younger were given a tasty lunch that included a chicken-pasta salad, a nectarine, and milk.
The families lingered in the huge, bright library with warm yellow and adobe-colored walls and multicolored cut-outs of the faces of Mexican historical figures strung across the ceiling. That day, Paula Marie Parker, a storyteller from Stagebridge Performing Arts in Oakland, shared an East African tale that explains why the sun stays in the sky for so long on summer days. Every Thursday afternoon, the library hosts art workshops with Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA).
This attempt to put children and books together over the summer essentially costs the community nothing. Federal funding supports the lunches provided through the city. The Alameda County Community Food Bank recruited and organized about 150 volunteers to oversee the distribution of the food and fill out the required paperwork for the federal lunch program, which occurs in nine branch libraries throughout the city Tuesday through Friday, and in the Children’s Room and Teen Room in the main library Monday through Friday. The volunteers serve about 250 to 300 lunches a day.
Cat Burton, advocacy and education associate with the food bank, recruited the volunteers, who agreed to work for at least four lunches.
“I know kids go hungry, and I hate to think about it,” said Gloria Meads of Oakland, who is retired and volunteered that Tuesday at Cesar Chavez. “There’s not a lot I can do, but I can do this.”
The program appears to be working, said Pete Villasenor, branch manager at Cesar Chavez. “Once the kids have eaten, they tend to browse longer,” he said. “Circulation of books has gone up this summer,” he added, pointing to hundreds of books on carts waiting to be reshelved.
Miralda Buenrostro said the program is important for her family, which includes Leslie, 13, Josaline, 10, Jesus, 7, and Gizelle, 5. Her husband, she said, works any job he can get, including construction and cleaning rugs. But he doesn’t find work every day.
“People don’t have jobs and not much money,” she said. “Free food really helps.”
The children said they enjoy the chance to pick out books as well, and have discovered authors that appeal to them.
“I like the Junie B. Jones books,” Josaline said as she eagerly waited for the library to open.
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