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Summer lost: Episode 1 – The slide

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia. It’s a sweltering summer afternoon in Philadelphia, and Dion Jones is reading to his two sons, Jayven and Cameron, on a bench in Smith Memorial Playground.

It’s July 1, one of the first weeks of summer vacation, and Jones just received a handful of free children’s books from the Eagles Youth Partnership.

“Which one do you want me to read?” Jones asks his boys. “‘More Bears!’?” he suggests, motioning at a book with a blue cover — a wacky poem by children’s author Kenn Nesbitt.

“Yeah!” shouts 6-year-old Jayven with a big grin. Cameron, who is 2, climbs on his dad’s lap as Jones begins reading rhymes from the book about a family of hibernating mammals.

The books "will help keep them active and keep them learning,” said Jones, who is also a single father and a correctional officer who said he finds it difficult to ensure that his kids stay engaged with learning activities during the summer.

After turning the last page, Jones hurries out of the park with his children so he can make it to work on time.

“It’s great that these programs exist,” Jones said. “It’s very hard to get my kids out, be active with them and their learning, and it’s very nice that they’re free because some things don’t fit the budget.”

The Eagles Youth Partnership book drive gave away oodles of books at Smith Playground to hundreds of parents like Jones. The event also featured cameos by the Eagles’ superhero mascot Storybook Man, who arrived in his patented green Bookmobile — with green jersey to match — to read Robert Munsch books to an audience of children.

The Eagles’ book drive was part of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a grand new initiative that aims to dramatically increase the number of 3rd-grade children reading at grade level by 2020. Philadelphia joined the campaign in December 2013, along with hundreds of other communities across America.

One of the areas that the campaign is targeting to reach this goal is reversing the "summer slide," or summer learning loss — the learned skills that are lost over children’s summer vacation.

Summer learning loss varies across ages, subjects, and family income. It especially affects lower-income households, which have fewer resources to access meaningful summer learning opportunites.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is implementing a multi-tiered approach that brings together parents, summer camps, libraries, and education advocates. Research has shown that a high percentage of America’s children (most reputable studies indicate somewhere around 80 percent) are unable to read at an adequate level. Further research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private educational philanthropy based in Baltimore, also indicates that the capacity to read at grade level is a future indicator of career success — or failure. Poor reading skills trigger high dropout rates and low graduation rates.

“All Philadelphia families should use this summer wisely and read to the children in their lives,” said Lori Shorr, chief education officer for Mayor Nutter.

In June, Nutter and the Department of Human Services announced they were giving more than 200,000 books to 51,200 young students in Philadelphia’s public school system. Children in kindergarten through 3rd grade received four books each to build their own mini-library at home over the summer.

“Stemming the ‘summer slide’ is one important component of a broader, more comprehensive approach to improving educational outcomes for Philadelphia’s children,” said Shorr.

Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the Urban Affairs Coalition are leading the charge and have attracted dozens of partners to participate in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, including the American Reading Company, Philadelphia Reads, Eagles Youth Partnership, Rock to the Future, the YMCA, Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Clubs, and others.

“The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading brings together a whole host of community stakeholders who are really interested in Philadelphia youth reading at a proficient level by grade three,” said Christopher Gale, manager of literacy initiatives at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Philadelphia.

As part of the campaign, Gale said, this summer will have a heavier focus on literacy, numeracy, and other learning activities at the Boys and Girls Clubs.

“It’s a very ambitious plan, but it’s very comprehensive,” Gale said.

The city, through Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, has also recently launched REACH, a new youth development program in conjunction with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. In partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia, more than 20 Parks and Recreation sites will be facilitating REACH pilots this summer, with literacy being a major component.

“This is a yesterday need,” said Maryum Darby-Madison, special assistant to the deputy mayor, who emphasized the need to incorporate literacy and learning activities into summer activities, park programs, and camps already in place.

“We need to bring learning where young people are. If they are on a sports field, we need to infuse learning there. If they’re doing arts and crafts, we have to build learning into that. We really need people to step up to this challenge and make it a priority as a city."

Stay tuned for Episode 2 of Summer Lost, airing next week on Subscribe to the Notebook’s YouTube & Vimeo channels to see all of the Summer Lost episodes. Follow Dorian Geiger on Twitter.

Watch the other episodes in the series Episode 2: City’s summer camps transform into classrooms

Episode 3: Cash-strapped families struggle to keep kids learning through summer

Episode 4: In Baltimore, students go high-tech at low cost

Episode 5: Immigrants face steeper summer slide

Episode 6: As summer ends, promising start in push to curb learning loss

Talking summer learning loss with PhillyCAM

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