Helping Early Readers Avoid Summer Learning Loss

Rural churches fill a critical community need by offering summer literacy programs.

Multiple studies point toward the learning loss that can happen during the summer if students can’t access high-quality educational opportunities. This “summer slide” means that many children return to school with achievement levels that have fallen.

The Duke Endowment is working with rural congregations in North Carolina to combat learning loss in their communities through evidence-informed summer literacy programs for rising first- through fourth-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.


Research shows that 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.

Children in high-income and middle-income areas often have access to educational activities that can keep young minds engaged. For children in low-income and under-resourced areas, finding summer educational opportunities can be more challenging.

Experts sometimes describe that disparity with the “faucet theory.” During the school year, all children have access to a steady flow of resources from their schools. That flow continues during the summer for middle- and higher-income students. But for children who live in high-poverty or rural areas, the flow can slow to a trickle. Consequences can be cumulative and long-lasting – and the gap is often harder to close once it opens.

High quality summer reading and learning programs can help prevent students from losing ground – and can even give them a boost.


In 2012, the Endowment launched an effort to engage rural churches in a multi-faceted summer-learning intervention to improve literacy among elementary school students in their communities. It was called Ubuntu, an ancient African word translated as “I am what I am because of what we all are.”

Ubuntu used a three-pronged approach: recruiting students who need literacy intervention for a six-week academy; evidence-based and data-driven instruction by highly qualified teachers; and weekly parent-led workshops to engage families in the education process. Together, these strategies were intended to equip churches to play a measurable and effective role in the community, and to help close the literacy gap between Ubuntu students and their better-resourced peers.

Endowment Trustees approved a one-year grant to Monticello United Methodist Church in Iredell County, N.C., to test the Ubuntu project in the summer of 2013. Results in a site-reported pre and post evaluation were promising, and a second grant funded the program for two more summers. In 2016, the Trustees awarded a three-year, $195,000 grant.

During that time, the Endowment also began funding STARS, a summer learning camp based on the Ubuntu framework, at Seaside United Methodist Church in rural Brunswick County.

In 2018, Fairview United Methodist Church in Thomasville, N.C., became the third site for the Endowment’s summer literacy work.

Most recently, Endowment Trustees approved $1.3 million in ten grants to continue to advance and test the initiative over the next three years. Nine new rural United Methodist churches in North Carolina will implement a summer literacy program in 2019.

Endowment-Supported Summer Programs

Funded churches each recruit 24 to 36 early elementary school students in need of literacy intervention. The program:

  • Runs for six weeks in the summer, Monday-Friday
  • Is hosted in church buildings
  • Hires teachers who demonstrate excellent reading instruction
  • Provides reading instruction for three hours each morning and enrichment for three hours each afternoon
  • Provides a healthy breakfast and lunch to all students
  • Wraps students in love and overcomes barriers to their participation and learning
  • Engages parents/guardians through weekly workshops


Seeing a promising model in the early programs, the Endowment hired Helen Chen with the Harvard Graduate School of Education to begin an evaluation process.

This May 2021 report by Project Evident shows how The Duke Endowment is using evidence to build and scale a summer literacy program in rural communities.

During the summer of 2016, Dr. Chen studied the effectiveness of the programs, with an eye toward later replication and scaling. She concluded that promise was evident, with strong reading gains for students and documented benefits to families and congregations.

The Endowment worked with Dr. Chen and the congregations to create guiding principles to govern the programs, and then to design an evaluation based on the principles. The six principles are meant to provide guidelines for new and existing programs, while allowing for context and community-specific needs.

They are:

  • Thriving and engaged church community
  • Strong community investment
  • Wrap-around services
  • Empowered and effective teachers
  • Data-informed and student-focused instruction
  • Family engagement

Undergirding each of these principles is a focus on evidence and evidence-building. With no tested model in the scientific literature for summer literacy programs hosted in rural churches, the Endowment seeks to fill that void by developing a model that can be evaluated for effectiveness.

Long-term plans include conducting a rigorous impact evaluation by 2021 and potentially replicating and scaling the model to help struggling readers in rural areas across the state.

“If we can demonstrate a positive impact on literacy outcomes, we’d love to be able to see rural churches all across North Carolina implement these programs,” Chen says. “We think any church with the desire and heart to do this can really impact their community and serve their most vulnerable in this way.”


Area of Work

  • Congregational outreach

Program Area

  • Rural Church

Grantmaking Status

Areas of Work

  • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

    To equip children and families with skills to ensure that children reach developmental milestones to lead successful lives.

  • Out-of-home care for youth

    To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

  • Quality and safety of health care

    Improving the quality and safety of health care delivery

  • Access to health care

    Improving health by increasing access to comprehensive care

  • Prevention

    Expanding programs to promote health and prevent disease

  • Academic excellence

    Enhancing academic excellence through program and campus development

  • Educational access and success

    Increasing educational access and supporting a learning environment that promotes achievement

  • Campus and community engagement

    Promoting a culture of service, collaboration and engagement among schools and communities

  • Rural church development

    Building the infrastructure and capacity of United Methodist churches to enhance ministry and mission

  • Clergy leadership

    Strengthening United Methodist churches by improving the quality and effectiveness of church leadership

  • Congregational outreach

    Engaging United Methodist congregations in programs that serve their communities