Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

A summer effort in Tampa, Florida, that began as way to help low-income families succeed in the work world has also become a way to help those families’ children succeed in school.

“It has evolved,” says Jamie Toennies, senior director of education strategies at United Way Suncoast, lead organization for the Tampa grade-level reading campaign. Tampa is among 30 communities honored as a 2014 Pacesetter by the Campaign for early reading work.

“We were funding summer camps to support low-income families by providing them with full-time quality child care. But as summer learning loss research came out, we recognized that the families we serve were being affected negatively and we needed to address this.”

As a result, more than 3,000 kindergarten through fifth-grade students attending Tampa Bay’s Summer Care effort in 2015 spend at least a half-hour daily on literacy-related activities in order to curb learning loss over the summer that can hamper children’s ability to read proficiently.

About 500 of the children also receive eight weeks of intensive literacy tutoring, up from 166 children in 2014. “Some children are really struggling and need extra resources,” says Toennies.

At the start of summer 2014, none of the students selected for tutoring read at grade level. By summer’s end, 62 percent read at grade level and all increased their reading by, on average, eight months, assessments show. “They didn’t suffer summer learning loss as a result of this program,” says Toennies.

Offered by 13 nonprofit organizations at 26 sites in low-income communities across the Tampa Bay region, Summer Care operates full-day, five days a week, over the entire summer and costs about $100 per week.

Almost 600 children are receiving full scholarships from United Way to attend the camps in 2015, up from 460 children five years ago. Scholarships are given to low-income families that commit to sending their children for the entire summer. The parents of these scholarship students must attend a financial education program. Some provider organizations offer additional scholarships.

Begun in 2005 with a focus on bolstering low-income families’ financial stability, Summer Care broadened in 2010 to focus on closing the academic achievement gap between children from low-income families and their more affluent peers by addressing summer learning loss.

The United Way decided to switch from “the traditional model” of funding nonprofit groups (such as the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club) that run summer camps to a new model that encourages these groups to broaden their camps’ focus to address summer learning loss.

“An important aspect of the project and its success is that we invited the organizations to be part of the conversation about the issue and the planning process to address it, so they have ownership in the program as well,” said Toennies. “They see the bigger picture, how this is different and how we can impact our community.”

A search for a summer learning curriculum that would engage children and be easy to use for staff members (including teenage counselors) led to the Summer Bridge Activities, a workbook series designed to reinforce basic skills learned the previous school year and to prepare children for their next year in reading, writing, math, social studies and fitness.

“We’ve gotten really good feedback about the books from the children and the staff are comfortable implementing it,” says Toennies.

The intensive literacy tutoring is provided by teacher-training students in St. Petersburg College’s education program, who each work with 15 students either one-on-one or with up to three children at a time. One unexpected bonus is that the tutors report that they have benefited professionally from tutoring.

“This is very important because all of the tutors have become teachers at high-poverty, low-performing schools,” says Marie Biggs, a St. Petersburg College literacy education professor who leads the tutoring component.

For more information, contact Jamie Toennies at 813-274-0925 or Photos: United Way Suncoast; Publication Date: Summer 2015. To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at

Does your community have a summer learning program? If so, share your experience in the comments box!

Want more? Check out: 

- How the San Francisco Bay Area's summer efforts will benefit from a philanthropic effort by the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee.

- How Southern Pines, N.C. is adding reading activities to summer camp.

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Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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