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

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Christopher Gale, a counselor at the Northeast Frankford Boys & Girls Club, had an ambitious goal this summer: Immerse his campers in 30 minutes of structured reading time every day.

He was motivated by the phenomenon known as summer learning loss, or summer slide, that is contributing to low literacy rates among Philadelphia’s children.

Gale recently learned that when children aren’t engaged in some form of academic enrichment over the summer months, they lose months of knowledge and fall behind when they return to classes in the fall.

It’s a problem that contributes to low literacy and graduation rates and high dropout rates in Philadelphia schools. According to Public Citizens for Children and Youth, 74 percent of children who cannot read proficiently by the completion of 3rd grade struggle in later grades and are four to six times more likely to drop out.

Summer slide is a concept that has yet to gain traction — not only with children, but with parents, teachers, educational advocates, and summer camp staff counselors, too.

The Northeast Frankford location of the Boys & Girls Club is underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded, housed in an old, cramped two-story building in North Philadelphia that lacks air conditioning. Gale knew it would be tough to get books into the hands of kids, especially during the summer, when most of his campers prefer to be outside under the sun, spraying each other with garden hoses, rather than reading.

One humid, late-July afternoon, Gale, 32, stood at the front of the room, looking very much the part of a teacher. Above his glasses, sweat collected on his forehead. He picked up a book and held it up in front of a dozen or so elementary-age girls. Only about four or five children were paying attention, and Gale was losing patience. The remainder sat aimlessly at a row of computers in the back of the room talking amongst themselves. One girl scrolled through an online catalog for Nike shoes.

Eventually, Gale’s campers crowded around him, and he leafed through a short children’s book on the science behind water. Afterward, he had each child choose a book and read to themselves for 15 minutes.

Tamia Blair was one of just a handful of these children who understood the implications of summer slide.

“I think it’s important to read in the summer, because a lot of the things you learn in the school year you forget," said Blair, adding that the time she spent reading and learning helped her "know what to do for next year.”

Under the READ! By Fourth Campaign, the 13 chapters of Philadelphia’s Boys & Girls Clubs began infusing more structured literacy activities into their traditional summer camps.

“Implementing more structured academic activity into our summer camps was good. I think it was more successful on some sites than other sites,” Gale said.

On Aug. 12, Public Citizens for Youth and Children and the Urban Affairs Coalition launched the READ! By Fourth initiative. The campaign is a six-year partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading designed to dramatically increase literacy levels of 4th-grade children in Philadelphia by 2020.

The campaign has targeted summer learning loss as a major barrier in achieving its 2020 goal. READ! used an integrated approach, which brought together an eclectic mix of 50 public and private organizations in Philadelphia dedicated to boosting children’s literacy rates.

The Department of Human Services donated five books to every child in the School District in June, and the Free Library trained Parks and Recreation staff to become literacy coaches and implement more structured learning activities into their daily programming.

Organizations like the Eagles Youth Partnership sent around their mascot, Storybook Man, in his bookmobile to dozens of summer camp and library sites to give the gift of reading to young people.

Other groups like Springboard Collaborative continued to bridge the gap between parents, teachers, and children in the summer time. Thousands of children were served.

Despite the staggering budget crisis the School District is facing, READ! By Fourth and eliminating summer slide are still top priorities for Superintendent William Hite.

“Everything that we spend time doing during the year could all be wiped out when children are out of school in the summer,” said Hite. “It’s extremely important to get children into these experiences and it’s extremely important for us to equip parents with strategies that they can use to help their children over the summer.”

Gale has two sons, and the READ! campaign has transformed him into an educator both at work and at home. He now knows how to “trick” his campers and his own children into reading and learning. By infusing literacy components into games like basketball and other sports, he’s found success. At home, he has gotten one of his sons hooked on reading comic books.

Transforming the Boys & Girls Club into a hybrid classroom has proved more daunting, however, given the lack of resources and overabundance of children. The Northeast Frankford location serves hundreds of children daily and around 7,000 annually. They only charge $5 per child for a one-year enrollment fee.

“We really were trying to get all kids half an hour a day reading. That was really ambitious, we realize now, and some kids didn’t want to do it at all,” said Gale, who manages the literacy initiatives at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia.

Hedra Packman, a literacy and library consultant for READ! who specializes in summer programming, was pleased with the campaign’s first summer. She said they had more than 80 camps participating in partnership with READ!

“Many parents aren’t aware of the summer reading slide, and once you talk to them about it, they’re all in for doing something but they didn’t know about it,” said Packman. “The children loved the literacy portions of their camp. They loved reading books, they loved having somebody read to them. They were all in for this, and thought it was the best thing that happened to their camps. That was the biggest outcome we’re going to see this summer.”

Packman was adamant that the campaign needs to be more organized and better promoted, as well as launched earlier next summer in order to be more successful.

“Next year, the biggest recommendation is start earlier because people really want to do this. Camps really want to participate.”

Gale, however, feels READ! needs some time to breathe before any substantial improvements are noticeable.

“It’s going to be a few years before we see any big changes. But I think given enough time, halfway through the approach — it’s a six-year campaign — I think within the third year, we’ll start to see some good gains in reading and writing proficiency levels.”

READ! is still developing its testing method of measuring the success of the campaign. But Gale thinks the summer was a success, at least in raising awareness.

“Whether or not the campaign was successful is a tough question to really measure, only because there were so many moving parts across the city,” said Gale. “As long as the conversation continues and as long as key organizations are still challenging how we can effectively reach our youth, I think that doubling the level of on-level readers by 4th grade by the year 2020 is very achievable in Philadelphia.”

This was the final full-length episode of the Summer Lost: Stopping the Slide multimedia web series. The Notebook will publish a mystery bonus episode to officially conclude the series next week. 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 1: The slide

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

Talking summer learning loss with PhillyCAM

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