What adults might not remember about the long, carefree summer days of youth is how much they forgot between June and September. In fact, the typical child experiences a three-month loss in reading achievement known as the “summer slide.”
On July 21st, Philadelphia-area children’s advocates, organizers, and nonprofits gathered at the Philadelphia Foundation for a conversation on how to promote childhood literacy by working collaboratively.
The prospect of using summer as an opportunity to hone literacy skills might induce groans from most kids, but solutions to the “summer slide” can actually be entertaining. Take Fun Safe Philly Summer, a citywide initiative that aims to help kids enjoy their summer safely and productively. Youth Commission Director Ricardo Calderón said, “Kids had too much time on their hands, with not much to do.” By bringing together various community programs and resources, like free books, activities, and even maps to the nearest local libraries, Fun Safe Philly Summer helps kids escape both boredom and backsliding.
The program partnered with the nonprofit Springboard Collaborative to create Playstreets, which are special streets throughout the city that are blocked off on certain days so children can play safely, enjoy free meals, and participate in book clubs. Carefully curated book collections put together by Team First Book Philadelphia are packaged by grade level and given to Playstreet attendees free of charge. Care goes into choosing the books so that they reflect diversity, include strong female protagonists, and are about situations kids can relate to.
“The look on the children’s faces when they see the books is just amazing, because [they’re] new,” Calderón enthused. “The kids are starving for that. Who shows up in your hood with books and wants to spend time with you?”
Receiving a set of new books helps kids start a family library, and having a library in the house correlates with reading achievement. Many kids don’t own any books at all. In middle-income neighborhoods, the book-to-child ratio is about 13:1, compared with 1:300 in low-income neighborhoods. Because less than 40 percent of third graders read at grade level, addressing these disparities is a matter of growing urgency. Calderón said, “I’ve worked with 18-year-old high school graduates who could not get through a job application. We’re graduating kids to a world they’re not ready for.”
Kids don’t have forever to catch up, either. As Mike Gross, East Coast director of Springboard Collaborative, explained, “In fourth grade, students go from learning to read to reading to learn. If you can’t make that adjustment, you’re in big trouble.”
Part of Springboard’s mission is to use summer as a time for catch-up, harnessing the power of parents, teachers, and community to bring kids up to speed. Gross explained that since 75 percent of kids’ time is spent outside of a classroom, parental involvement is critical to closing the reading achievement gap. Through home visits, workshops, and five-week summer “interventions,” Springboard teaches parents reading strategies like using context clues and encouraging kids to predict what happens next in a story.
Organizations that address childhood literacy are not new. Programs come and go, and part of the struggle for organizers is winning the trust of neighborhoods who have seen past efforts fizzle out. “There’s a distrust between communities and any kind of service, frankly,” said Calderón. He cites the importance of learning from other programs’ mistakes in order to avoid ideas that have already proven ineffective.
Jenny Bogoni, executive director of the Read by 4th Campaign at the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, agrees that implementing new ideas and programs is not enough. “Teaching a child to read is complicated, but it’s not rocket science,” she said. “We already know how to do it. Now, we need to raise awareness about what actually works.”
The Read by 4th Campaign brings together public and private partner organizations with the shared goal of increasing the number of incoming fourth graders who read at grade level. That means training parents and teachers, addressing the summer slide, and pursuing other priorities based on national research. Bogoni believes that through collaboration local literacy efforts can develop shared knowledge, scale up high-quality programs, and match the right program with the right child. “For us to move the needle, every sector of our community needs to understand what goes into childhood reading.”
And kids take it to heart when members of the community, from their teachers to their Playstreet “meal captains,” support their reading goals. Calderón has even seen local drug dealers urging kids to “go get a book.”
He also pointed out that when literacy organizations collaborate, “children get to see people, professionals, and volunteers from all walks of life coming together for one common purpose: them.”
Fun Safe Philly Summer had established the Playstreets program prior to their collaboration with Springboard. The collaboration enabled the enhancement of programming at some of the city’s Playstreets.