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San Jose Mercury News: Oakland: Falling in love with books to fight summer learning loss

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By Samantha Clark
Oakland Tribune

OAKLAND - July 23, 2014 - In Alameda County, nearly 70 percent of low-income youth are not proficient readers by the end of third grade, according to 2013 standardized test scores. Until high school, only half of them read at grade level.

"Two-thirds of the achievement gap by ninth grade can be attributed to summer learning loss because that loss is cumulative," said Nazaneen Khalilnaji-Otto, Summer Matters campaign manager. "The lack of access to stimulating opportunities leads to the summer learning loss gap."

Summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students, who lose two to three months in reading achievement. Only one-third of low-income youth participate in any kind of summer learning.

Higher-income children who have the means to traipse to summer sleep-away or science camps continue to progress, or at least maintain their reading level.

In Oakland, summer programs aim to close that achievement gap by helping students with less fall in love with books.

Caie Kelley, 18, volunteers reading with low-income preschool- and school-aged children. She and 4-year-old Sophia Rodriguez read Dr. Seuss' "Hop on Pop" in a high school playroom in East Oakland.

"Three. Tree. Three fish in a tree," Kelley read aloud. "Can you point to the bees?"

"One, two, three," Sophia answered.

Sophia cannot read yet, but Kelley makes sure that she follows along by asking her questions about the characters' actions or the colors in the landscape.

Kelley is a teen mentor with Community Reading Buddies summer program, which has four locations in the East Bay.

The bookworm teen role models make reading look cool -- a message that purposefully comes from someone akin to an older brother or sister rather than a teacher or a parent.

"Our aim is to imbue young children with this lifelong interest and excitement in reading," said Rebecca Cohen, Community Reading Buddies program director, "so when summer comes, they will be excited to pick up a book because they've had positive experiences in reading."

Having children read for pleasure helps students develop a joy for it, but it also means they are not under pressure to match school standards and other students.

The Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools program has a similar approach to help youth fall in love with reading by making it personal.

They take books home and focus on books with characters that reflect the diversity of the mostly black and handful of Latino students and with themes about history and social justice issues.

"We believe that when students see themselves in what they're learning, they're more likely to engage," said Saira Soto, interim executive director of the California program. "Because they connect with the topics and the characters, they want to continue to read and to learn more about their own history."

Each day starts with a harambee, which means "pull together" in Swahili, in which children play in a circle to pump them up for the day's lesson. "See a book, grab a book, read a book, hey!" teachers and children chant in unison and freestyle dance.

When the six-week program ended last summer, 86 percent of male students and 100 percent of female students in the West Oakland program and 92 percent and 100 percent, respectively, in East Oakland maintained or improved in reading level.

The new summer program at the Community School for Creative Education also encourages diversity in children's books and home libraries, especially for its large English-language learner population, which is at 70 percent.

Many of the school's students live in the low-resource neighborhood on International Boulevard.

"When there was a whole push to have summer school, it was to serve the neediest students," said Ida Oberman, executive director and founder of the school. "Those students we have to ask, 'how is it going to be in August?' They need that extra academic push."

A National Summer Learning Association survey found that it takes most teachers about a month to reteach the previous year's skills at the beginning of the school year.

The curriculum of the program, which comes from the national education nonprofit BELL, focuses on language arts and math with lots of word problems followed by playful afternoon "enrichment" activities, which are connected to the morning work.

"Singing, play, acting, writing," Oberman said, "and out of that grows more confident reading. It's about children experiencing the language and becoming more comfortable with it as a bedrock for reading."

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