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.

When Connecticut’s NewAlliance Foundation decided to focus on stemming the summer learning loss that often affects children from low-income families, it chose public libraries in four communities to lead the charge including the library in Vernon, a Grade-Level Reading Campaign community.

"Libraries are brick-and-mortar places where you can establish relationships that are likely to last,” explains Maryann Ott, associate director of the New Haven-based foundation. “Staff turnover isn’t huge and there’s one in every community.” After a competitive process, three-year grants were awarded to four libraries to each develop a program to address “the summer slide” that can hamper children’s ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade.

In 2015, during the third summer of NewAlliance’s “READy for the Grade” initiative, 150 children ages 5 to 8 participated — most either at risk of falling further behind in reading or from low-income families. “All the libraries have hit their stride and are running amazing programs,” says Ott. “Because word has caught on, most are running at capacity.”

In 2014, when 134 children participated, reading scores increased over the summer for 52 percent, were unchanged (so no slide) for 35 percent and decreased for 13 percent. “A large percentage are not sliding and many are improving,” says Ott.

 

NewAlliance hopes to continue supporting the existing efforts with new three-year grants while adding two libraries from among the 44 communities it serves. “We’ve learned a lot including how important it is to let each community organically develop its program, specific to its demographics, experience and knowledge,” says Ott. “The success has been due to the ownership the communities developed.”

Each library partners with a school serving K-3 students from low-income families, engages parents and provides children’s reading assessment scores before and after the summer program to an independent evaluator.

While the programs generally run seven-to-eight weeks and serve children entering grades 1 through 4, they differ. Vernon’s Rockville Public Library hired the school district’s reading specialist to help develop a program. “The kids get a leg up because she’s so familiar with them,” says Ott.  “She tailors activities to their needs.”

In Wallingford, support from the Hispanic community and a bilingual program coordinator produced particularly successful parent engagement. “It’s changing the culture in the houses where kids live, with mothers insisting that their children read before bed,” says Ott.

New Haven hired interns to provide one-on-one help to children with attention and behavior challenges. Killingly has a reading lab in a public housing complex, encourages participation through incentives like gift cards and uses college students to provide tutoring. 

People involved with the four programs also get together to share ideas. Wallingford, for example, addressed a transportation issue by providing cabs for some students to attend the summer program — a strategy that Killingly later adopted.

NewAlliance has long worked on education and closing the academic achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers. But the summer learning focus was inspired by the GLR Campaign, says Ott, adding: “We liked the idea of drilling down on something significant but manageable.”

Other lessons and insights from the early years of READy for the Grade include: 

  • The grants of $35,000 per summer proved to be more than necessary to run successful programs. 
  • The negative impact of the “constant turnover” of school district personnel. “Changing principals and superintendents causes disruption that trickles down to affect the kids,” says Ott. 
  • The programs’ inevitable learning curve. “The first year, they stumbled. The second year, they made adjustments. By the third year, it’s like they’re experts,” says Ott.  “It’s been a fascinating learning experience.” 
  • The positive impact of connecting the public library and public school district. “Our community operates in silos and the children’s librarian in the public library often doesn’t know the reading specialist in the elementary school,” says Ott. “This program is building those relationships and really nice collaborations.” 

For more information, contact Maryann Ott at 203-859-6555 or mott@newalliancefoundation.org.  Photos: NewAlliance Foundation; Publication Date: Summer 2015. 

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

Want more? Check out:  How Waukegan, Illinois and Tampa, Florida are approaching summer learning.

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

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