Groups Scramble to Fight Students’ Literacy Slip Over Summer Break

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Literacy, Inc. recently gathered children from around the city (and a famous explorer) for a reading rally at City Hall. It and other like-minded groups have struggled to deal with the summer literacy problem.

Patrick Donachie

Literacy, Inc. recently gathered children from around the city (and a famous explorer) for a reading rally at City Hall. It and other like-minded groups have struggled to deal with the summer literacy problem.

The forecast projected rain for the afternoon of July 8th, and the staff at Literacy Inc. were concerned that they’d be forced to call off the inaugural “Reading on the Rails” event they’d planned for the steps of City Hall. They needn’t have worried; the day ended up as a 88-degree scorcher.

Students, parents and educators were to meet at seven different areas in the city, where they’d board subways for City Hall enjoying live storybook readings along the way. Jennifer John, Literacy Inc.’s deputy executive director, said the event illustrated the organization’s increased emphasis on summer reading.

“Five years ago, summer was our planning time,” John said. “But we’ve realized how vital this period is.”

When the groups convened at City Hall, children and chaperones sat on the concrete steps and heard remarks from Literacy Inc. Coordinator Deborah Dessaure, City Council Member Mark Levine, and Council Education Committee Chair Daniel Dromm, who regaled the children with a reading of “Giraffes Can’t Dance.” Dora the Explorer even made a surprise appearance to take photos with the students.

Literacy Inc. purposefully timed the event to highlight the importance of maintaining literacy gains over the summer. The organization operates reading enrichment programs in schools and libraries that reach 15,000 students and 4,000 parents, and it’s one of many groups fighting the literacy losses that are most pronounced for students during summer breaks. Despite such efforts, losses over the summer continue to impact schoolchildren, particularly those from lower income brackets.

Access to books is uneven

When it comes to retaining skills in math developed during the school year, students across all socioeconomic lines tend to experience learning loss during the summer break. But literacy losses are not necessarily uniform among all students. Research indicates that it’s common for students from lower-income backgrounds to lose two to three months in literacy skills per summer, and by the fifth grade, those students could be as many as three years behind their more affluent peers.

Advocates stress that early childhood reading is paramount for future success. A study from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child found that most children who encountered difficulty when reading during kindergarten would still face difficulty in the third grade. Children without basic literacy skills at the start of school were three to four times more likely to drop out, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey.

The ramifications of low literacy skills extend far beyond the classroom. In testimony presented to the New York State Legislature on Feb. 3, 2015, representatives from the non-profit organization Literacy New York wrote that the United States lost more than $225 billion each year because of low literacy skill development. Adults with low literacy skills suffered from a higher unemployment rate and lower hourly wages than the average member of the work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These literacy gaps between students from differing income levels usually materialize during summer breaks; low-income students often make as many gains as affluent students during the school year, but the progressions diverge come summertime.

“I’ve taught second grade and then taught third grade in the fall, and they were not reading as well as they were in the spring,” said Jessica Sie, Success Academy’s associate director of literacy. Sie taught at Success and at a public district school in Colorado, and saw the effect of summer learning loss firsthand.

“Summer slide is something we have seen,” she said. “It is real.”

City Council Member Mark Levine, one of the speakers at Literacy Inc.’s City Hall event, lamented that the widening literacy gap wasn’t given greater focus.

“It’s incredible we haven’t devoted more resources to this,” he said. “Kids spend 80 percent of their life outside of school. I don’t see any way to close the achievement gap that doesn’t capitalize on that.”

According to Joseph Viteritti, the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy and chair of the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at Hunter College, the specter of learning loss and the need for summer remedial programs continues to stymie educators and policymakers.

“Having lived through this through several chancellors, it’s clear to me that this is something that’s going to happen every summer,” he said. “It’s part of the normal part of educating students throughout the system.”

Many ideas, little support

Joe Musso remembers that the idea for Literacy in Motion came to him years ago, during his morning commute to work. At the time, Musso was a teacher in the New York City public school system, witnessing the effect summer learning loss had on the literacy skills of his students. He often noticed children heading to school accompanied by their parents during the subway ride to work.

He thought that those moments could be perfect for developing reading skills and strengthening the parent/child bond, but he also understood that parents might have difficulty finding the time to visit the library or bookstore for their child, particularly if they worked multiple jobs.

“Maybe you can create a library in the path of the family,” he wondered. “Maybe this could be in subway stations, you can use your library card, and you swipe and get a book.”

Musso originally envisioned Literacy in Motion to be a series of book-vending kiosks placed in subway stations, laundromats and NYCHA housing lobbies, but the plan evolved into collections of books in easily accessible areas. Throughout, the concept remained constant; Musso wanted to make it as simple as possible to get New York City schoolchildren books to read.

“Any moment you’re putting a book into a child’s hands will go a long way,” he said.

Musso said he was frustrated by the lack of access to reading materials available in lower-income communities which could impede students’ ability to retain the gains in literacy they’d made over the course of a regular school year. A meta-analysis conducted by Jim Lindsay for Learning Point Associates found that, by and large, “children from poorer families have fewer books in their homes, have fewer books available in the school and classroom library, and live farther from public libraries than do children raised by middle- and upper-income families.”

Musso also stressed the importance of supplying age-appropriate materials for students, noting that books below or above their level could potentially hinder their progress. He said that as many as 90 percent of low-income families lacked age-appropriate reading material in the home.

“I think access as a standalone definitely improves literacy,” he said. “But children need to be taught about appropriate course selection, that if you’re five years old and pick up (David McCullough’s Revolutionary War history book) 1776 you won’t get anything out of it.”

Musso also considered access to quality literary materials essential for community development.

“As Americans, we have communities with no access to age-appropriate materials, and then we ask those communities later, ‘why can’t you read?'” he said. “It’s not okay; we are setting up these children to not do well in the future.”

Capital funds for Literacy in Motion haven’t yet materialized, but Musso contends that the program’s model is feasible and easily scalable.

Alvin Irby, who founded the Harlem-based Barbershop Books, stressed that in addition to providing access to books, formulating a culture of loving to read was essential. Irby’s program supplies several barbershops in Harlem with a selection of books curated by Irby to get more young black boys reading for fun. Barbershops, according to Irby, were a perfect venue to instill a passion for reading among young boys of color.

“There really is no other space in many black or Latino communities where you have men from different socioeconomic backgrounds interacting,” he said. “That makes a unique kind of opportunity for all kinds of modeling and cultural exchange to happen.”

“We’re trying to change boys’ attitudes about reading and about their own self-perception,” he continued. Irby hopes to expand the program both in Harlem and into East New York. He’s also started a campaign on IndieGoGo to raise funds, hoping to take Barbershop Books nationwide.

Despite the myriad approaches advocated by educators and organizations, Musso admitted that he was frustrated by the lack of urgency that the rate of literacy losses had failed to impassion the public.

“It hasn’t permeated as a national issue in the way it needs to be,” he said. “There’s a societal disconnect about how critical early access and reading to your children is.”

Summer vacation is a time of worry for teachers, principals, parents and policymakers who fear that students will lose ground during the long break. This summer, City Limits will look every week at some aspect of the citywide, summer-long effort to stop the summer slide.

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