Summer Literacy Effort Braves COVID

If students aren’t learning during the summer, they can lose ground academically — and once children fall back, the gap in achievement can grow with each year.

The Duke Endowment is working with rural United Methodist churches in North Carolina to combat learning loss in their communities through evidence-informed summer literacy programs for rising first- through third-graders. The goals are to improve literacy outcomes for students who are at risk for reading failure and encourage churches to play an effective role in helping children and families. Long-term plans include conducting a rigorous impact evaluation and potentially replicating and scaling the model to help struggling readers in rural areas across the state.

Since the program’s inception, 15 rural churches in 15 counties have participated. Thirteen held camps this year, either virtually or in person, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As in previous years, students served by the summer literacy programs realized statistically significant improvements in literacy skills. They also saw positive changes related to their attitudes and motivation around reading.

Caroline Parker with EducationNC toured three of the sites to see how they did it and what changed from previous years. She visited Brevard First United Methodist Church the week prior to the start of camp, Cullowhee United Methodist Church on the third day of instruction, and Sparta United Methodist Church during the last week of camp. The common thread? Dedication to doing what is best for students. 

Her story is below. (The full version can be found here).

Brevard United Methodist

This was Brevard UMC’s first year for the summer literacy program, but they had a 40-year education veteran in program director Fay Agar to guide them. Agar ran an Endowment-funded summer literacy camp in West Nash last year, so she was not new to the program.

There was a 5 to 1 student-to-teacher ratio, as children were divided into rooms to keep group numbers low. The camp had specific drop-off protocols, such as taking temperatures, asking parents if anyone felt sick, and more. Brevard First UMC offered transportation, and volunteers drove buses.

Computers were used for two assessments: a growth assessment and a weekly formative assessment. The teachers changed their lesson plans weekly for each student based on the formative assessment. Agar pointed to Lyrics 2 Learn, a program that uses music to help with literacy, and Reading from A to Z, where students can download books with reading comprehension lessons.

Before camp started, she expressed hopefulness: It won’t be easy, but I think we can rise to the challenge.”

Dedication to doing what is best for students.

Cullowhee United Methodist

At Cullowhee UMC, on Western Carolina University’s campus, the Whee Read Summer Literacy Program had 17 students with five paid staff members, all educators, and an intern whose main job was to sanitize.

When students arrived, parents were asked to stay in the car, students walked up, had their temperature checked and logged, and then got a squirt of hand sanitizer before heading in the building for breakfast. Angie Lovedahl, elementary curriculum director at Jackson County Public Schools and staff member at this summer literacy camp, said they did their research before committing to having the camp in-person.

We can still do a lot, you just have to problem solve,” she said. You just have to figure out a different way to approach it.”

Students were seated at opposite ends of tables for mealtime. In classrooms, everyone was spread out. Teachers wore masks until they started reading to the class aloud or instructing for vowel sounds.

In deciding if they were going to hold camp virtually or in-person, Lovedahl says there were strong opinions. As long as they could do it safely, the educators believed it pertinent to have face-to-face instruction.

Sparta United Methodist

Maggie Murphy and Kyla Gatton became reading road warriors for the summer. Murphy, the literacy director and fourth grade teacher at Piney Creek Elementary, and Gatton, Sparta UMC’s growth and community engagement coordinator, drove from 85 to 92 miles a week in the camp’s G.O.A.L. (Growth, Openness, Achievement, Literacy) mobile.

Sparta UMC’s literacy camp opted to go virtual this year, but instructors knew how important person-to-person contact was, especially for students who had been learning remotely since March. With a combination of Zoom instruction and three weekly in-person touch points, Sparta continued to build trust with the community.

The G.O.A.L. Summer Literacy Camp Zoom call started at 9:30 a.m., Monday through Friday. They began together, singing songs or playing a game. Eighteen students were engaged.

At 9:40 a.m., Murphy swooshed” the students into their breakout rooms for instruction.

We joined some breakout sessions where teachers were using programs like Learning A to Z and Hue. Students were reading out loud, holding up banana cutouts or playing scavenger hunt,” a virtual show and tell. Later, educators also had one-on-one instruction time based on the child’s growth.

After morning instruction on Mondays and Thursdays, students knew to expect the G.O.A.L. mobile. This was a huge part of camp, and two of the three in-person touch points.

On those two days, organizers loaded up a car with backpacks, books, snacks, enrichment activities and fun treats. They also delivered materials from teachers so instruction could keep progressing. Students earned points for attendance, respectfulness, reaching goals and more. Based on the points, they got to put on gloves and pick out special prizes. Gatton and Murphy also took this time to check in with parents.

The other weekly touch point came on Wednesday nights when the church’s Grace Kitchen opened for a community dinner. The dinner was take-out only, but they could feed as many as 200 people. Families of the students were encouraged to stop by for dinner and pick up materials for camp.

What was the deciding factor in making this year’s camp virtual? Leaning on the first rule of the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley: Do no harm. Said Gatton: We just kept coming back to the fact that we work so hard in our communities to establish ourselves as a trustworthy place, as a safe place.”

Editor’s note: The Duke Endowment supports the work of EducationNC. Caroline Parker is a multimedia storyteller for EducationNC.

Summer Literacy Effort Braves COVID 02

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