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By engaging parents, reading program succeeds in reversing learning loss

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Sitting close together in a classroom at Hartranft School in North Philadelphia, Richard Dyer and his granddaughter Taylor, 6, are sharing the pleasures of a Dr. Seuss storybook.

They turn page after page, studying the illustrations and taking turns trying to predict what’s going to happen next.

Standing near them, teacher Kimberly Madaway listens to the back-and-forth, encouraging the conversation.

This is a reading lesson well-learned — both for Taylor and for her granddad.

“Make a prediction. Ask questions. Take a picture walk through the book,” Madaway suggested, coaching Dyer and other caregivers in attendance that morning on ways they can help their children become better readers.

The idea is grand: Give parents the skills to be their children’s out-of-school reading teacher.

That proposition is at the core of the novel summer reading program now reaching almost 700 children in grades K-3 at eight Philadelphia schools, according to Alejandro Gac-Artigas, 24, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Springboard Collaborative, which runs the program.

About 300 children identified as struggling readers are enrolled at Hartranft and three other District schools — Blaine, Duckrey, and McKinley — while nearly 400 more attend the program at four charter schools — Belmont, Russell Byers, Wissahickon, and Pan American Academy. Last summer, students gained an average of 2.8 months in reading skills over end-of-year levels, according to Springboard.

The program aims to reverse the notorious summer learning slide that sets back progress for struggling readers, especially those whose families lack the resources to pay for travel, camp, and other summertime learning experiences. Research shows that losses over the summer cumulatively may account, by 9th grade, for as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap separating children in poverty from their middle-class peers.

The impact of summer learning loss became apparent to Gac-Artigas as a first-year teacher at Pan American. He had joined Teach for America after graduation from Harvard University in 2009. Review work with his 1st-grade class went well into November that year, he recalled.

The problem “smacked me in the face,” he said. But then a light went on. To his mind, “summer learning loss felt like the symptom of the deeper problem, which was that kids weren’t learning at home.”

Alejandro Gac-Artigas, founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative

The program is straightforward, but with a twist in that parents are directly involved.

  • Families of students identified as struggling in reading are invited to participate in the program, which runs four hours a day, five days a week for five weeks.
  • Classes are small, with an average of 15 students, who are all of a similar skill level, no matter what their age or grade is.
  • Teachers are trained in the Springboard curriculum, which emphasizes a balanced literacy approach, a combination of word study, reading aloud, shared reading and guided reading, plus a writing project.
  • At the weekly workshops, teachers train caregivers in the basics of instruction, using PowerPoint and printed materials, with an emphasis on how to prompt the child without word-for-word involvement.
  • Parents keep a daily log of their child’s reading efforts at home, including minutes of reading and any observations or concerns, which the child brings to school each day.

The pilot program at Pan American drew 42 children in the summer of 2011, and 340 children participated last summer in the four charter schools. Parent participation last year averaged 91 percent, according to Springboard data.

There are inducements: breakfast and lunch for the children, bagels for parents attending the workshop; books for all children; school supplies for those who meet the five-week learning goal; and laptops for those who exceed the goal. Last summer, three in 10 children earned laptops, Gac-Artigas said.

In the short term, he said, setting goals and offering perks “gets kids, parents, and teachers behind the same goal.” Long term, parents acquire the same tools — books, supplies, laptop — that the teacher has in the classroom. Parents are reminded repeatedly of the importance of workshop attendance and reading at home.

“Half an hour at night is not that big a deal,” teacher Gale McDonald told parents attending her workshop at Belmont Charter School. “You guys have a part to play, I have a part. This is so important.”

Materials are available in Spanish, and Springboard-trained teachers are sensitive to the possibility that the parent’s own reading skills may be lacking.

“We don’t make any assumptions about their own ability to read,” Gac-Artigas said. “A parent blurting out a word is not good teaching. Good teaching is coaching.” And that is what parents are trained to do.

Parents need to be viewed as an indispensable asset, said Gac-Artigas. “In parents, you have people who are willing and able to teach kids to read and who don’t expect to come on the payroll for having done it. And that thought resonates in a lean budget climate.”

The cost per child to the District this summer is about $500, or about $150,000 total. The only other program the District is using its own money to run this summer is one that helps seniors who should have graduated in June to acquire one or two credits and meet requirements to win diplomas.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said in a statement that the District opened Springboard programs in the four schools because it had "showed impressive results in its pilot, both in improving reading skills and engaging parents."

Kihn added, "We are partnering with Springboard to find philanthropic funds for a portion or all of the costs."

Sarah Pitcock, with the National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, said the challenge for Springboard would be to sustain the initiative over time. Too many administrators, she said, view such programs “as an extra and not an integral part” of the academic program. Pitcock described the parent workshops as “innovative” and gave credit to the District for approving the opening of the Springboard classes this summer. “We applaud them for that,” she said.

Claire Cohen, Belmont’s principal, said that once parents become involved, they embrace the program.

“The assumption sometimes is that the parents won’t come, but that’s not true,” she said. “The parents are here to help the program work, and they know that.”

The incentives, she said, “are a key way to initially invest parents and kids. But in the end, if you took those things away, I don’t think it would make a difference.”

Finding success with Springboard, some schools have redoubled efforts to involve parents during the school year, according to Gac-Artigas. One opened a parent resource center, and another began issuing library cards to parents. At Hartranft, Madaway said she planned to talk with her principal about starting up a weekly parent workshop.

Dyer, Taylor’s grandfather, said that attentiveness was an issue for the child and that he and her parents were working with her at home.

“One thing I learned was the value of asking her questions about what she is reading. Now I can become a partner and spend more time with her one on one,” Dyer said. “There are some very specific skills I’ve gotten here this morning.”

Another grandparent, Sharon Waymer, said that her granddaughter Amani Lee, 8, previously “would be scared to sound out a word.” Just eight days into the program, Amani has gotten past that fear.

“I’ve learned a lot, she’s learned a lot, and we take it home to her mother and she joins in,” said Waymer. “And her father joins in and now her 4-year-old sister wants to read. It is excellent.”

Hartranft principal Kelli Rosado said the Springboard program “matches exactly what we do” during the school year. “Even though the District is going through all these transitions, obviously the emphasis has to be on student growth and achievement.”

Despite its value, this summer’s program has reached only a portion of the students at Hartranft who could benefit, noted Rosado, adding, “I know we have more students who need to be here, but for whatever reason, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t get them here.”

Gac-Artigas said obtaining current contact information for prospective families has proved to be an obstacle.

Tyesha Duran, whose daughter Tamyah, 6, will be in 1st grade at Belmont, said the concept of a learning slide in the summer made sense to her. “If they have nothing to do — what else? she said. “They’re at a loss in September.”

The Springboard program has taught her ways to help Tamyah. “I didn’t know how to break down sentences,” she said. “And I’ve learned that reading should never be pushed to the side. You should always make the time.”

This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.

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