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 program to stem the summer learning loss that can slow at-risk children’s academic progress did not succeed overnight in Rock Island County, Illinois. It took time.

“They’ve retooled it every year,” says Alex Kolker of United Way of the Quad Cities Area, which leads the grade-level reading campaign in several Illinois and Iowa communities. “One lesson here is that one test run is not enough. If we had made our decision based solely on outcomes for years one and two, we wouldn’t have funded year three.”

The Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) began showing promise in year four — summer 2014. The free, six-week program served 295 elementary school-age children from low-income families, most identified as needing academic support. Educators led literacy and math activities infused into preexisting summer camps in Rock Island and Milan.

An assessment comparing SEP students’ performance before and after the 2014 program — and comparing SEP and non-SEP students — found that: 

  • SEP students had an average increase of 9.3 percentage points in their literacy score while non-SEP students showed no significant change. 
  • SEP students were 53 percent more likely to show improvement than students who attended sites that had educators but not SEP. 
  • Concern that attendance would dip if summer camp included educational activities was unwarranted. Attendance was better for SEP students than non-SEP students. (SEP also employs attendance and retention strategies.)

These strong results will spur an SEP expansion into other Illinois and Iowa communities by 2016, plus the hiring of a year-round coordinator who works to secure additional local funders to support that expansion, says Kolker. “A 9.3 [point] average increase is amazing. And what I like most is having control groups,” he says. “We were interested in replicating but we couldn’t make the case until we had solid data showing the program is working.”

Led and funded primarily by the Doris and Victor Day Foundation of Rock Island, SEP’s five-hour day includes about 75 percent educational components (primarily literacy) infused into activities such as a basketball game or craft project. Educators design activities to meet their specific students’ needs.

“The model is based on a philosophy rather than a curriculum, which allows each site to keep its uniqueness while incorporating enrichment activities,” says David Geenen, the Day Foundation’s executive director.

One activity, for example, involved older students writing plays and performing for younger students who were then asked questions about the play. “It’s about being up, moving, creative, offering hands-on ways to get kids involved and forming good connections so education isn’t as intimidating for struggling learners,” says Katie Colbrese, summer enrichment coordinator for the local Child Abuse Council, which oversaw SEP.

“We’re able to trick the kids into learning during the summer months when they want to be out playing. If the educators are tied to the school building and standards, they can’t be as innovative.”

Certainly, other communities can learn from the Quad Cities’ experience — and possibly save some trial-and-error time. The annual retooling changed the program model, which has been documented in a new best practices guide. Changes include: 

  • Educators now focus more on teaching, rather than chores such as serving lunch. 
  • They are told in advance about camp activities so they can better plan educational components. 
  • Each educator now works with a small group of 10 students. 
  • The educators also took over the assessment so children are evaluated in a way that better isolates and gauges the effect of SEP. 

Another key to success has been a strong collaboration that includes: school districts, which identify students in need; funders; and camp programs, which buy in to new staff and activities. Assessment also needs to be ongoing, which may spur more retooling. “We will have to do many more years of testing,” says Kolker. But so far so good. About the 2014 results, he says, “My socks were blown off!”  

For more information, contact Alex Kolker at 563-344-0339 or  Photos: SEP; Publication Date: Fall 2014. 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:


E-mail me when people leave their comments –

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

You need to be a member of The Huddle to add comments!

Join The Huddle


  • Love to see this success! I’m interested in the role of teachers in the program’s success.
    Is everyone who helps to lead the program a licensed teacher?
    Were they recruited specifically for this role?
    What characteristics make the strongest summer learning leaders?
    How does this program connect with other summer school the District might be offering?
    How does it connect with other summer learning opportunities offered outside of the District, like the YMCA or recreation department, for example?
    • Each site has at least (depending on population size) one lead teachers who is a certified teacher from the local district. For the larger sites, this person is supported by para-educators, who are most often grad students in Education from the local colleges. Last year, however, we filled up on our lead spots right away, and several licensed teachers opted to serve as paras even with the lower pay.

      The characteristic that makes the strongest leaders, beyond passion, is creativity: many of our teachers love the summer program because they have more freedom to try out new things than they would during the regular school year.

      There is no other summer school offered in the districts where we housed these programs. For one district, our program *was* their official district summer school.

      YMCA ran two of our sites last year. The Parks Department ran three of our control sites. Any camp site that caters to low-income kids can incorporate the SEP model into their already-existing structure. The model has proved to be quite adaptable.
    • Thanks for reading and for your great questions. I've alerted Alex in the Quad Cities, who is a good person to ask!
  • So excited to hear about your great results and your persistence! What kind of assessments did you use and were they the same ones that the schools use? What grades are the children going in to?
    • Yes, the school district uses Acuity for their annual standardized tests. They picked the two parameters that their students tended to struggle with the most and created a much shorter version of the test for SEP -- a different one for each grade level. Email me at and I'll send you copies.
  • Great statement about not giving up after just one year! What kind of changes did you make after the first years that made the third so successful? How did you present the data and the changes to continue securing funding?
    • Year One, we didn't mandate how the camp sites incorporated literacy into their activities. We also didn't mandate that the SEP staffers be included in camp planning sessions. This resulted in dissatisfaction among our educators (some of them barely did any literacy instruction at all -- they were basically just additional camp counselors) and no read impact on our students.

      In Year Two, we mandated that all sites agree to specific parameters about how SEP was (and was not) supposed to be integrated into their program. We tried to get good assessment data in Year Two, but couldn't generate a significant sample size. The main review between Years Two and Three was calibration of number of educators per site and how to integrate literacy into non-educational activities.

      In Year Three, we funded SEP sites and control sites, we created our own outcomes measures, and we required strict adherence to the SEP model.

      Next month, we start to meet about how to fine-tune the model for Year Four. This will include incorporating suggestions from Western Illinois University, who has volunteered to conduct academically-rigorous outcomes analysis for the model.
      • Really interesting detail, Alex. Thank you for sharing. Did you see Angela's question above about assessments and which grades the children were entering? Can you share a bit more about creating your own outcome measures?
        • Hmm -- I did reply, along with the others. Would it have gotten lost somehow?
      • Thanks Alex! Very helpful.
This reply was deleted.