Jada Bougard and Kayla Terrell looked to each other and then back down at their vocabulary worksheets. ‘What word should we match for “frozen rain,” Jada asked. “Precipitation or hail?”
Kayla flipped back to the short story that she and her classmates, 40 eight- and nine-year-olds, just read at a daily literacy intervention class at the Thomas B. Davis YMCA in Whitehaven.
“Hail!” she said, pumping her fists into the air when the teacher declared her answer correct.
The two girls are among more than 1,000 Memphis children receiving reading instruction through their camps this summer because of an unprecedented effort to get community groups across the city working toward the same goals.
That effort is spearheaded by Seeding Success, the Memphis member of StriveTogether, a national “collective impact” initiative. Memphis community groups agreed last summer to an ambitious slate of goals, including to have 90 percent of Memphis third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.
Currently, only about a third of local third graders read on grade level, and many fall behind over the summer vacation, according to Mark Sturgis, Seeding Success’s executive director. (Seeding Success and Chalkbeat both receive funds from the Pyramid Peak Foundation).
“Years of research has shown that third-grade reading is indicative of post-secondary success,” Sturgis said. “We know that kids lose ground in the summer, regardless of how effective their teachers were. There’s a strong place for the community to stand in that gap. That’s why we’ve formed our network and focused on the summer.”
Designed by Literacy Mid-South, the summer literacy program gives partner sites everything they need to offer 45 to 90 minutes of K-3 literacy instruction everyday.
That includes materials, teacher training, and ideas about how to deliver lessons. It also includes information about the test scores of students enrolled in their camps, which Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District have agreed to share with Seeding Success.
Because of the data-sharing, organizations can tailor literacy intervention to their own students, rather than treating all students as if they are on the same reading level.
Kim Morgan-West, the YMCA camp director, said having student test scores in hand allows her team to group students based on skill level and focus on the students who are the furthest behind.
“We were able to see a lot of improvement in our students who participated last summer, especially in their confidence to read,” Morgan-West said. “Literacy is the base for all learning, and summer is a great time to strengthen that base. It’s exciting to be able to expand our program this year and better tailor it to our students’ specific needs.”
Literacy Mid-South typically focuses on adult learning —the group estimates that about a quarter of adults in Memphis are functionally illiterate — but decided to support summer programs for school-age children after Seeding Success brought local groups together.
“We saw a huge correlation” between students’ low third-grade scores and adult illiteracy, said Kevin Dean, executive director of Literacy Mid-South. “And we saw an opportunity, because so many summer camps have students walk through their doors every day, but they just weren’t teaching them reading.”
A pilot version of the program last summer served 350 students at six sites. This year, 10 times as many students are enrolled at 15 different locations, ranging from the Whitehaven YMCA to Memphis Athletic Ministries to a summer program run by the Memphis Teacher Residency teacher training program.
The rapid expansion came after Seeding Success’s internal evaluation showed that participation prevented students from losing academic ground over the summer, a phenomenon known as the “summer slide” that tends to hit low-income students hardest.
According to Seeding Success’s data from last summer, 74 percent of the 350 students who participated maintained their reading levels over the summer or improved. Only six students showed a backslide, Sturgis said.
Students typically lose two to three months in reading achievement over the summer, according to the National Summer Learning Association.
Students who participate over the summer will receive a book at the end of every week that they are in the program, in an effort to encourage students to continue reading at home, Sturgis said.
“Many students don’t have access to books at home,” he said. “And even if they did, they can’t learn to read well on their own. That’s why basic, foundational skills need to be taught first.”
To reach Memphis’s 90-percent on-track goal by 2025, 500 more third-graders will need to read at grade level every year. Sturgis is confident that goal is attainable.
“It’s easy for a lone teacher to feel overwhelmed at this vast need,” he said. “We can move the needle slowly and progressively if we mobilize the entire community. Because without literacy skills, students are going to get left behind for a lifetime.”
Editor’s note: The third graph has been updated to include the number of Memphis children participating in the program.