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School’s Out but Learning is Still In: Summer Resources for Families of Students with Learning Differences

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

As the final dismissal bells tolled to mark the official start of summer, thousands of students across the state headed home and won’t spend a moment more in the classroom for more than two months. For students with disabilities who may exit the school year at a reading level two or three grade levels behind, this hiatus can be especially devastating. But a break from school should not indicate a break from learning. Summer is a prime opportunity for parents to step in and help their children maintain and advance their skills to prepare them for the new school year.

Today, 5.7 million students across the country learn in special education settings. Here in Davidson County, where I’m a Ph.D. student in special education, 12 percent of the overall student body is comprised of kids with disabilities.

 I first came to the classroom as a Teach For America corps member, teaching reading to 6th- and 7th-grade students with disabilities. Since I taught many students for consecutive years, I remember the disappointment on the first day of a new school year when I’d learn that my students hadn’t opened a book all summer. Reading to or with your children is a simple, enjoyable activity that can be easily worked into a daily routine at your convenience. Students who struggle with reading fluency can practice reading aloud a book that is at or slightly above their grade level. Repetition of these word sounds establishes familiarity with vocabulary and increases the likelihood that their brain will be able to recognize similar types of word patterns in the future. For students who have difficulty with reading comprehension, parents can ask their children factual questions about the story they just read to practice literal comprehension as well as interpretive comprehension questions that challenge them to think critically about why characters made certain choices or how they might react in similar situations.

 Students who read significantly below grade level are often reluctant to read the books designed for them at their actual reading level. To ameliorate this problem, there is an entire genre of fiction and non-fiction books called “hi-lo” (high interest, low level) that caters to the older student who has difficulty reading at grade level but still wants to read books about relevant topics and relatable characters. (See Scholastic listing of their top 10 favorite hi-lo books.)

Summer is also a great time to take advantage of resources and supports available outside of the umbrella of the school system. Vanderbilt’s Kennedy Center — a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities — hosts Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, a user-friendly statewide database of programs and resources available for families across Tennessee. Their scope includes education programs, multicultural outreach, summer camps, recreational organizations, and advocacy and support groups available for people with disabilities of all ages.

Local branches of national organizations like Best Buddies and the Special Olympics work with students, teachers, and families to host events that support both community and school-based inclusion through local events and mentoring programs. Additionally, Teach For America-Nashville is part of the organization’s national Special Education and Ability Initiative, which aims to strengthen partnerships between communities, families and special education corps members to help meet students’ unique learning needs, and further develop its national teacher training around differentiation and other key practices.

Parents of children with disabilities also have a unique opportunity this summer to participate in a statewide survey that will help inform legislators, service providers, school personnel, and policymakers of the areas of greatest need and resources and supports of greatest desire. Hosted by TennesseeWorks in partnership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and more than 30 other disability-related organizations, this survey is open to parents across the state who have a son or daughter with an intellectual or developmental disability. The voices of at least 2,000 parents will be included as part of the Governor’s Executive Report in August. You may find more details about this important statewide study here.

Summer is a time of fun and exploration – continued learning naturally fits in. These coming months provide a unique opportunity to reinforce the gains students have made over the previous year, and set them up for success in the year to come. Let’s not let this moment pass us by.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.