Q: Our city wants to add an academic component to our summer recreation program because many of our elementary students have weak test scores. School, civic and city representatives are meeting to create the program. We disagree on what the focus should be. Some want science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities; others reading or arts or field trips. What will provide the most bang for our buck?
A: Focus on reading. STEM subjects, the arts and history are all important, but children can't master or enjoy them until they read on grade level.
Studies by the Annie E. Casey Foundation show that nearly 70 percent of our nation's children, and more than 80 percent of children from low-income families, are not proficient readers by the end of third grade.
These alarming numbers "have dire consequences for those children, their families and communities," says Darlene Kostrub, former chief executive officer of the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County (Fla.). "Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a critically important marker in a child's educational development."
There's a saying in education circles: "In the first three grades, children learn to read. In fourth grade, they read to learn," says Kostrub. "In the fourth grade, students encounter more sophisticated science, math and social studies texts and if they can't read them, they fall behind very quickly in every subject. Research shows that children who struggle with reading in the fourth grade are more likely to drop out of high school. Of course, that affects their lifetime earning potential."
Of the many initiatives designed to improve early reading, one that Kostrub says has the potential to make a strong impact is the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and its affiliated Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Network. Launched in 2011, the campaign is a collaboration of funders, nonprofit groups, schools and communities, including civic and business leaders.
"The network recognizes that schools alone can't make up for missed learning opportunities in a child's early years," says Kostrub. "The entire community must engage on three fronts: close the school readiness gap at home, increase school attendance and prevent summer learning loss.
"Attendance data show that one in 10 children miss more than a month of school annually in the primary grades when reading is a key part of the curriculum. We know that many children lose ground in reading over the summer months. The campaign helps communities focus on these areas."
More than 140 cities, counties and towns have joined the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Network. The network provides best practices in school readiness, attendance and summer learning, plus technical expertise in promoting and funding the program locally.
"To launch our Palm Beach County program, we worked closely with the network and the local Children's Services Council," says Kostrub. "The campaign's senior consultant, Ron Fairchild (former CEO of the National Summer Learning Association), attended meetings with our mayors and other community leaders to explain why everyone needed to get involved."
Communities must apply to join the network. Applications for this year are due April 1. For more information, go to gradelevelreading.net, or email Ron Fairchild at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)