Closing the Summer Learning Gap for 10,000 Kids

By Ginger Young, founder and executive director, Book Harvest

(This article originally ran in the Durham Herald-Sun on April 24.)

Closing gaps is a team effort in the Triangle.

A year ago, the United Way of the Greater Triangle (UWGT) worked with partner organizations to organize collective impact collaboratives to tackle some of our region’s thorniest challenges. Among them: a two-generation approach, entitled “Changing Generations: Pathways to Progress for Families and Children”.

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Members of the Close the Gap working group gathered at the United Way of the Greater Triangle on March 24 to plan their book-based responses to summer learning loss.

Close the Gap was one collaborative which received Changing Generations support from UWGT. Led by the Durham-based nonprofit Book Harvest, its partners include Durham Public Schools, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, the statewide North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, and the national social enterprise First Book. Last month, these Close the Gap collaborators convened a working group of activists and educators from four school systems and seven youth literacy organizations to plan strategy for closing the gap.

What is the gap the working group aspires to close? The question is actually how many gaps: the work the group is engaged in will address the word gap, the opportunity gap, the book gap, the literacy gap, and the achievement gap.  All of these are fueled by a devastating phenomenon that affects many low-income students:  the erosion of skills that they face each summer. As their higher-income peers prosper in the summer, nourished by camps, trips, and other enrichments, they lack such opportunities and struggle through long weeks without supports to stay on track. They return to the classroom in the fall having lost two to three months of the gains they worked so hard to achieve the year before.

This summer learning gap, according to Drs. Richard Allington and Ann McGill-Franzen, accounts for fully 80% of the income-based achievement gap. The gap compounds each summer, so that by the time they reach fifth grade, lower-income students can be three years behind their peers academically.

What can be done? One response is elegantly simple. Having access to books in summer is the key to reading over the summer. And reading as few as five books can help students maintain their academic skills.

Because many children do not have ready access to books, the UWGT-funded Close the Gap working group is forging a response to the summer learning gap, one that involves getting books – lots of books — into the hands of low-income students before they head home for summer.

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Students at Y.E. Smith Elementary School in Durham share some of the Book Harvest books they selected at Books on Break in May 2015.

This initiative is happening across the Triangle.  In Wake County, Wake Up and Read will send 6,369 students in 10 schools home with 10 books each. Similar efforts will take place in Chatham County. In Durham and Orange counties, Book Harvest will join with school partners to run its Books on Break program, reaching 3,930 students in 17 schools with 10 books each. Further, Book Harvest will offer a toolkit to additional schools which plan to adopt its Books on Break model; this assistance includes a seed grant of 500 books per school to help motivate them to get involved.

Allies supplementing this work will make closing the summer learning gap even more achievable. The Durham County Library and the Orange County Public Library will share their summer reading programs with participating students, providing them with incentives to read throughout the summer. State Superintendent June Atkinson’s Give Five – Read Five program will, for the first time this year, partner with myON to offer students across the state access to thousands of online books.  And Durham’s Partnership for Children’s Transition to Kindergarten program will use books from Book Harvest to enable kindergartners next fall to arrive at school already nourished by a home library.

Close the Gap participants expect that 10,419 elementary school students across four counties will take home books this spring, to read over the summer and to keep forever. And that will close a lot of gaps, helping our students return to school in the fall ready to learn and to flourish in the classroom. Along the way, they will enjoy some great stories and may even lay the foundation for a lifelong love of reading.