summer reading

Hoping to reduce summer learning loss, city turns to iPads loaded with books

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Emolior Academy Principal Derick Spaulding during the kickoff of SummerSail in 2014.

Sarita Parrales didn’t read at all last summer. And when it came time to start seventh grade, she remembered having to scramble.

“I felt like I was behind the whole class,” said Parrales, who will enter eighth grade at Emolior Academy, a public middle school in the South Bronx, this fall. “Then around like December or November, I was starting to catch up.”

Parrales described the setback this week at a Union Square bookstore, where she declared that this summer had been different: she had read a book from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, the childhood memoir of the writer Walter Dean Myers, and four others.

The difference this summer was a growing pilot program that sends New York City students home for the summer with iPads loaded with a digital library and software that tracks their reading. The program, now in its second year, is one of a number of ways the city is continuing to tackle a perennial problem: The fact that low-income students fall further behind than their peers from affluent families over summer break.

Nine weeks off from school are replaced with books from home or structured summer programs for some children, but for many others the break means going months without having anything to read — which can lead to a phenomenon known as “summer slide.”

“It’s very real,” said Sam Dorrance, a teacher at Emolior Academy. “And a lot of times, if they continue doing that year after year, reading doesn’t seem like something you get better at. It ends up appearing as though it’s just not something that’s for you.”

Emolior Academy was one of 18 schools and three community-based organizations that participated in the iPad-based program, called SummerSail, provided by the company LightSail. (CEO Gideon Stein is also on Chalkbeat’s board.) About 400 students received tablets loaded with novels, nonfiction books, poems, and articles tailored to their reading levels and were tasked with reading for four hours a week.

Students then met with teachers like Derrance every Monday for about four hours. He required them to write at least one “digital sticky note” about the book they were reading, asking a question or offering a summary or review.

It’s a structure that makes sure students have things to read that make sense to them, said Yolanda Rice, a reading coach at M.S. 385 in Brooklyn. Even for students who do have access to books at home, what’s available “might be too high or too low, or just the library that they have in their home is not diverse enough,” she said.

Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Learning Association, said programs like SummerSail and lower-tech book distributions can’t be expected to help students close big gaps in their reading skills. But they can maintain skills as students progress to the next grade level.

“The lowest-income students lose two to three months of their reading skills,” Pitcock said. “To have that evaporate over the course of the summer is huge.”

The pilot program has been available to schools in the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which aims to bring high-needs students up to grade level in reading and writing. Since 2012, initiative has provided schools with funds to lengthen the day, add tutors, train teachers, and buy books. (MSQI will grow to 108 schools, from 87, next year, the city announced Wednesday.)

Whether SummerSail specifically will help students hold onto those skills isn’t yet clear. The city has not completed an analysis of the program, and LightSail is working with Johns Hopkins University to conduct a study that will compare participants’ skills in June and September of this year to those of a control group of similar students.

Parrales, for one, said she still preferred reading “real” books. Her tablet required Internet access and did not have enough of a selection of anime, her favorite genre.

But she said she knew through experience that students who “don’t really read over the summer fall behind when they come back from school.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she said.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.