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YMCA Summer Camp Is a National Model for Struggling Readers

• Mike Thomas

StudentLearning for kids in our neighborhood does not end when the last school bell rings in June. There are camps, museums, science centers and so on.

Enrichment goes on. And when the bell resumes ringing in August, they’ll enter the classroom pretty much where they left off. They begin the school year with a running start.

Such is not the case for kids who live nearby in low-income communities. Their parents lack the resources to fill in the summer void, and so during those weeks, the knowledge their children gained the previous school year fades.

They don’t get a running start when school resumes. In fact for them, the starting line is moved back.

If you charted academic gains for advantaged kids during their K-12 years, you would see the line steadily progressing up. For disadvantaged kids, it zigzags every summer, meaning weeks if not months are spent catching up at the beginning of every school year.

Some education researchers have highlighted this “summer slide” as a major contributor to the achievement gap.

And the solution is summer brain camp. There is a good one in Charlotte, North Carolina.

It was started by the YMCA of Greater Charlotte in partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 1999.

At the end of the school year, principals in participating schools identify students in grades K-2 who are reading below grade level. They then identify their most effective teachers with a strong record of boosting learning gains.

The two then are paired for six weeks in their schools. The kids are transported, and get breakfast when they arrive. And then it is 2½ hours of reading instruction, broken down into working with words (phonics), guided reading, self-selected reading and writing.

There are 16 students per teacher and assistant, with community volunteers serving as “reading buddies.’’

After a morning of reading, there is lunch and then an afternoon of enrichment activities, including art, music and field trips. One day a week they receive swim lessons at a YMCA branch.

Does it work? The YMCA has been measuring results for 10 years on standardized reading tests. And the answer is yes, with the kids gaining three months or more in reading gains during the camp.

Put another way, this program is negating the summer slide. And such results have brought considerable buy-in from the community and from parents.

In the first year, Y Readers served 40 kids in one school. Now it serves nearly 600 kids in 10 schools. The cost is $1,450 per student.

The program is paid for by a YMCA funding campaign, with grants coming in from corporations and foundations. The United Way is a contributor along with Mecklenburg County.

In addition, there were 230 volunteers this summer.

The program won the 2014 Excellence in Summer Learning Award from the National Summer Learning Association.

Such success has turned the Charlotte program into a national model for the YMCA, which now offers summer reading programs based on Y Readers in 25 states.

Charlotte now plans to expand data gathering by tracking how well their students do on standardized tests during the school year. In other words, are the summer gains sticking and increasing academic performance in the months and years following the program.

The value of Y Readers, and the lesson it teaches us, is that education is a collaborative effort. And when programs are done properly and progress monitored to verify results, communities will embrace them – both with their pocket books and their time.

And then that success can go viral.

Learn more about Y Readers.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at