Summer Literacy Initiative

Rural Church  |  Identify and Test Selected Programs

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 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.


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.

Helping Early Readers Avoid Summer Learning Loss03


In 2012, the Endowment began to engage rural churches in a multifaceted summer-learning intervention to improve literacy among elementary school students in their communities. The program used a three-pronged approach: recruiting students who need literacy intervention for a six-week reading camp; providing evidence-informed and data-driven instruction by highly qualified teachers; and staging weekly parent-led workshops to engage families in the education process. Together, these strategies aimed to equip churches to play a measurable and effective role in the community, and to help close the literacy gap between rural 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 program in the summer of 2013. Results were promising, and a second grant funded the program for additional summers. In 2014, the Endowment also began funding the program 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. Nine additional churches joined the initiative in 2019; five more came on board in 2020. By 2022, the initiative had grown to 20 churches, and the Endowment’s total investment had reached over $2.5 million. More than 1200 students across the state had been served.

Endowment-Supported Summer Programs

Since the Rural Church Summer Literacy Initiative contributes to the Endowment’s emphasis on the zero to eight” population, funded churches each work with their local public schools and other community partners to recruit 24 to 48 kindergarten through second-grade students in need of summer literacy intervention. After recruitment, the program:

  • Runs for four to six weeks in the summer, Monday-Friday, with full day programming
  • Is hosted in church buildings
  • Hires teachers who demonstrate excellent reading instruction
  • Provides 80 – 90 total hours of reading instruction for during morning hours morning
  • Offers afternoon enrichment activities each day
  • Feeds 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 and other activities
  • Contributes to the ongoing development of the program model through data collection, research activities, and participation in the statewide learning community facilitated by the Endowment


In 2016, seeing a promising model in the early programs at Monticello and Seaside United Methodist churches, the Endowment hired Dr. Helen Chen with the Harvard Graduate School of Education to begin an evaluation process. She studied the effectiveness of the programs and concluded that while promise was evident, with strong reading gains for students and benefits to families and congregations, more attention to standardizing the program was needed before it could be fully understood and replicated.

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.

6 Guiding Principles

Guiding Principles 01
Guiding Principles 02
Guiding Principles 03
Guiding Principles 04
Guiding Principles 05
Guiding Principles 06

In addition to the six principles, at least two core values inform the work. They include a trauma-informed approach that considers learnings about the effects of toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), as well as a stance of cultural humility, which is defined by three pillars: life-long learning about self, considering power imbalances in human interaction, and seeking institutional transformation toward equity. 

Undergirding these principles and values is a focus on evidence and evidence-building. In 2020, the Endowment approved a grant to the American Institutes of Research to advance the evaluation work that Dr. Chen had begun, while shifting her role to providing implementation support for the churches and program development consultation for the Endowment. 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 2024 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.”


Since 2016 when evaluation efforts began, consistent findings have included: 

  • Students make statistically significant gains in reading skill during the course of the program. 
  • Students report positive changes in their reading behaviors and attitudes (e.g. reading more books, having better attitudes about reading and talking more often with family members about books).
  • Parents report positive changes in their support of their child’s reading, and in their home literacy environment. The programs address a community need and engage volunteers in meaningful work.
Statewide rectangle

The Duke Endowment’s Summer Literacy Initiative served:

Statewide 264
Statewide 94
Statewide 103
Statewide 67
Statewide 16
Statewide 51

We provided these students with:

Statewide 20169
Statewide 12700
Statewide 1460
Statewide 6 1
Statewide cal

As a result, we saw:

Statewide 6skills
Statewide increase 16
Statewide increase 23
Statewide increase 12

1. Based on DIBELS Pre- and Post-Tests, including DORF Word Count, DORF Retell, and First Sound Fluency.
2. Based on Lexia RAPID Reading Success Probability Pre-Test and Post-Test Scores.
3. Parent Survey administered by American Institutes for Research.
4. Student Survey administered by American Institutes for Research.

Lessons Learned


Prior to 2016, the Endowment had been helping rural churches provide after-school tutoring for children, but the Rural Church program area decided to adopt a more targeted approach through summer literacy because the impact of providing reading instruction during the summer was clearer and could be studied more easily. 

Recruiting churches into the effort was initially more challenging than expected. During conversations with congregations, lack of capacity” emerged as a recurring theme. The Endowment is addressing that through technical assistance and the formation of a learning community.

Strong partnerships with school districts and local elementary schools are critical for student recruitment. Building open communication lines between the church and school officials is essential.

The initiative is a year-round commitment for both the Endowment and its grantees, with multiple targets and deliverables throughout the calendar year.

The sites that hosted camps during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown (some virtually and some in-person) in 2020 learned valuable lessons that were shared with the broader grantee network and improved in-person implementation across all sites in 2021 and beyond.

Find out more about how churches are in ministry with children in their communities.

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

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