By Jennifer Wohlleb
How can Shelby county school officials tell their three-year-old Summer Reading Academy is working?
Not just by its reading scores, which have risen 10 points districtwide, but by the enthusiastic and nuanced book analysis offered by a sixth-grader who before this summer had never read a chapter book. By the end of the academy he had read three with plans to devour more.
“We’ve made it cool for kids to carry books,” said Shelby County’s director of secondary schools Kerry Fannin, who has since left the district.
PHOTO: Dustin Monroe gets some one-on-one reading help from teacher Joy Mayfield. Class sizes are kept small at the Summer Reading Academy, which is one factor district officials say has contributed to its success.
This year, students in grades 1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 who weren’t reading on grade level at the end of the school year were invited to attend the four-week intensive reading program.
“Our goal has been to move students one full academic year in four weeks,” said Cindy French, director of elementary schools. “The time they spend in this program would equate to a little more than a year in regular class time.”
Fannin said teachers have continued to monitor these students to make sure they are staying on track after the school year starts.
“We found that these kids gained in the fall and either maintained or grew during the winter and spring,” he said. “We have found that once they improve their reading skills they don’t lose them, by and large.”
Lisa Smith, director of districtwide programs, said the academy began with just elementary students.
“We had done summer school like other districts do summer school and what we were seeing, it was real hard to track data to determine cause and effect,” she said. “We decided we needed to be really intentional and at the same time we brought in our MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) data. What we ended up doing was identifying what we wanted to focus on – reading – and that would be for exiting first- and third-graders who were reading below grade level.”
For the academy’s founding, the district chose Reading Recovery, which has a 75 percent success rate of getting students on grade level, as a model. Reading Recovery is a 20-week, half-hour-a-day program. The district also pulled together reading specialists and principals to begin putting together a program.
“We decided with our students there would be no downtime,” Smith said. “Everything they did was directly in reading instruction. If we had three hours of summer school a day, they were in reading activities three hours a day.”
They also read at home, with the district requiring parents to commit to working with their kids daily on reading activities.
“Parents sign contracts with us, saying they will support this, that they’ll have their student there every day, that they’ll read with them every night,” Smith said. “To me, when that starts to happen, it’s a total community piece, that we’re all in.
“And this is intense. The kids go home after three hours tired. And it’s really funny, parents will say, ‘When we got home we did our 30 minutes of reading and he had to take an hour’s nap.’”
“In the first year we saw some significant growth,” Smith said. “In four weeks we had students range in making three months’ progress to as much as 18 months’ growth.
“We were quite pleased. We hired as many Reading Recovery teachers as we could get for our first-graders … they were able to continue that instruction” during the school year.
The teachers have also been students themselves, participating in professional development before and during the reading academy.
“To teach those 20 days, our teachers were getting anywhere between 18 and 24 hours of professional development,” Smith said. “If you didn’t do the professional development, you weren’t allowed to teach.”
She said in the second year of the academy when the district began partnering with the Literacy Center at Western Kentucky University, the popularity of the program increased even more among teachers.
“The professional development, it spread like wildfire through our district that this was some of the best PD that we had ever offered,” she said. “And our teachers were like, ‘I want to get in.’ Even some who weren’t able to teach summer school because of other commitments were like, ‘I need that PD.’”
Smith said what’s really remarkable about the program is that it is voluntary.
“We had 128 fifth-graders districtwide who were not reading on grade level when school closed June 4,” Smith said. “Eighty of the 128 are in summer school, and it’s not mandatory.”
French said at the beginning of the program, many of the students didn’t think of themselves as readers – now they do.
“They’ve learned how to ask questions while reading, how to get a picture of it in their minds,” she said. I had a little guy tell me the other day that ‘there are seven days left and in seven days I’m going to be caught up!’ Success breeds success.”