Reading & Literacy

Fla. Summer Campers Tackle the Books

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — July 09, 2003 6 min read
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Only a few months ago, Alayshea Miller struggled to make sense of the increasingly challenging texts she tried to read.

Like 43,000 other Florida pupils, the studious 9-year-old saw her difficulties reflected when she took the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test and fell shy of the marks required to advance to the 4th grade.

Anticipating the large numbers of 3rd graders who could be held back under the state’s stringent promotion standards that went into effect this year, state leaders pumped some $25 million into summer reading camps to help Alayshea and her peers become better readers.

Similar reading programs are being held in districts from Baltimore to Fort Worth, Texas, but Florida may have the only statewide student remediation effort focusing exclusively on reading.

After a month of camp—four-hour days packed with intensive instruction in comprehension strategies and structured reading time—Alayshea said late last month that she felt more confident in her reading skills and ready for 4th grade.

Now, the pupil at Eccleston Elementary School here rattles off the titles of the Judy Blume books she’s already read this summer.

“I’m glad I came to reading camp,” she said during a break from class. “I learned as much during reading camp as I learned the whole school year.”

At the end of the camps, students have another chance to take a standardized reading test and qualify for promotion, and state and local administrators will know later this summer whether the effort paid off.

“My hope is that a lot of kids will get the remediation they need to go on to 4th grade, and for the ones that don’t, they’ll have a head start on 3rd grade,” Gov. Jeb Bush said June 25 as he raced from a workshop for district superintendents to a speaking engagement. “We’re highlighting the importance of an intense focus regarding reading.”

State and Federal Money

Gov. Bush’s intense focus on reading started nearly two years ago, when he signed an executive order establishing Just Read, Florida! The program, financed with more than $100 million from state funds and a federal Reading First grant, is providing teacher professional development and research-based instructional materials to schools statewide.

The summer campaign was added this past spring to address concerns that thousands of 3rd graders would be held back under state policy that requires them to pass a reading test in order to move on to 4th grade.

There are some exemptions, however, for students with limited English skills, certain disabilities, or students who have demonstrated reading competency in other ways.

State Commissioner of Education Jim Horne and an entourage of staff members have been touring the state on a school bus flanked with the Just Read, Florida! banner to promote the camps and the governor’s flagship program. One morning last month, they boarded the bus before dawn and endured a sun-baked trip to reading camps in three counties.

The governor also spent a morning reading to a group of Tallahassee students to help spotlight the camps. “We are not just going to accept the notion that not everyone will be successful readers,” Mr. Bush said.

But the enthusiasm for the summer program has not been unanimous.

Officials in some districts have complained that they were not given adequate time or money to organize the programs, according to news reports. Then there are those who have publicly criticized the use of state tests for promotion decisions, and who argue that it is the state assessment system, not students, that needs remediation.

Others say the money would be more effectively spent on the front end, through more intensive preparation of teachers and reading coaches.

“The big problem in Florida is the lack of expertise in teaching reading,” Richard A. Allington, a reading researcher at the University of Florida, wrote in an e-mail to Education Week.

Waiting for Results

It remains to be seen whether the camps help students improve their reading skills enough to pass the state test.

Shinara Clayton, Alayshea Miller’s teacher during the school year and throughout the summer camp, said she has observed significant improvements in her students’ attention spans and ability to answer questions about what they’re reading.

“A lot of the students just needed to learn how to be attentive,” said Ms. Clayton, who has been using a “scripted” intervention program designed to improve reading comprehension. “Now they listen, stay focused, and feel confident enough to ask questions.”

But school administrators and parents may not know until later this summer which children will move up to 4th grade. State officials also intend to follow many of the camp participants throughout the next school year to determine the impact of the program.

In one preliminary case, the St. Petersburg Times reported in its July 2 edition that just 55 of 521 3rd graders who attended a summer reading camp in Pinellas County passed the exam needed to advance to 4th grade.

Meanwhile, the research on summer school in general, and disagreements over the benefits of holding back students who fail state tests, have fueled skepticism among scholars.

“Summer school traditionally has been quite ineffective,” said John Schacter, the vice president of research for the Santa Monica, Calif.- based Milken Family Foundation.

But Florida officials insist this is not your typical summer program.

“We’re not talking summer school,” said Mary Laura Oppenshaw, the director of Just Read, Florida!

She and other colleagues have drawn up guidelines for districts to use to ensure that their camps reflect what research has found to be effective.

“This is intensive immersion in reading,” Ms. Oppenshaw said.

Such programs can be effective in helping struggling readers catch up, according to Mr. Schacter, who has spent the last four years implementing and studying an eight-week summer reading program for disadvantaged students in Los Angeles.

The children in the program—which begins after 1st grade and incorporates two hours of instruction with field trips and other activities designed to be fun—outscored a control group by 25 percentile points on a standardized test, gains that have persisted for at least one year.

While Florida’s effort is commendable, Mr. Schacter said, it may not prove as effective.

“If they started at the end of 1st grade, by the time those kids get to 3rd grade they’d be on track,” he said. “They’re trying to remediate four years of instruction in four weeks.”

Florida officials are hoping a multipronged approach to the problem will make the difference.

In addition to the summer camps for students, some 8,000 teachers throughout the state will be spending part of their summer vacations in school. The state is offering an intensive professional- development program to immerse teachers from the state’s most disadvantaged schools in scientifically based instructional materials and methods.

Rallying Parents

As part of the summer-camp program, officials are encouraging parents of the participants to take more active roles in their children’s learning.

Michelle Pettigrew is taking that challenge seriously. She recently ushered her two children into the packed auditorium of Orlando’s Edgewater High School at dinnertime, determined to do whatever it took to help her daughter, Sarah, improve her reading skills and get into the 4th grade.

“I’m concerned about her reading because it’s the building block of everything else they do in school,” Ms. Pettigrew said.

On that hot June evening, the event drew more than 200 parents from throughout the 151,000-student Orange County district. Parents received resource kits with books and school supplies, as well as tips for building reading skills in just a few minutes a day.

“Your being here demonstrates your commitment to your children,” Commissioner Horne told the audience. “As parents, we are part of the equation.”

For three hours, Ms. Pettigrew and the other parents sat in workshops to learn strategies, games, and other techniques for increasing their children’s speed and accuracy in reading, as well as background knowledge and comprehension.

"[Sarah] is enjoying camp, and they are doing a whole lot of reading,” Ms. Pettigrew said. “But I came here because I want to do whatever I can to help her read better and go on to 4th grade.”

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