By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008
Early afternoon is a quiet time in Ervin Salazar's Fairfax County townhouse. His little brother naps upstairs, and the toddlers his mother babysits for curl up on cots in the living room. That's when 11-year-old Ervin likes to relax on the couch with a book.
He has read a half-dozen books since the end of fifth grade, some of them twice. Most are long chapter books that would have made his eyes glaze over three years ago, when he moved to Virginia from Bolivia. Now he chuckles about the mouse who is adopted by a human family, and he recounts Stuart Little's adventures to his mother in Spanish.
Then he writes a postcard to Mr. Stephens, his teacher at Fairhill Elementary, describing his favorite scenes. In reply, Mr. Stephens sends more books. Ervin is part of a summer school program, but he doesn't catch a bus or fill out worksheets or prepare for tests. He just reads.
The time on the couch is critical to maintaining hard-earned ground in his reading classes, teachers say. During the long hours of summer, many students' reading skills plateau or slip. Summer school, a traditional approach to keeping students on track, was dramatically reduced in Fairfax this year because of budget cuts. The duration of the program was trimmed, and about 13,500 students were enrolled, compared with 23,000 last year.
Concerned about the number of struggling readers who could not attend summer school, principals from six elementary schools, a middle school and a high school in the Falls Church area proposed a cost-conscious way to supplement their scaled-down offerings. Rather than spending thousands of dollars per student in the classroom, they invested in paperback books, postcards and stamps.
The principals were guided by an ongoing study in a handful of Fairfax schools that has shown benefits. The program provides support from teachers, in addition to books. With help from a reading specialist, students chose books to match their ability levels and interests. Specialists also gave them tips for improving comprehension, explaining, for example, how to identify plot or point of view. Students correspond with teachers through postcards over the summer. At some schools, teachers follow up with phone calls to check on their readers.
This fall, teachers plan to assess the reading progress of students in summer school and those reading at home. To stretch limited resources, Fairhill Elementary offered a school-based literacy program to younger students and is trying the distance-learning approach for about 50 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
Fairhill Principal Patricia Phillips said she is optimistic about the program. She said it is "highly motivating" for students to select their own books, get packages in the mail and keep in touch with their teachers.
The program targets readers who need extra help, regardless of family income. But it can be particularly useful for children from low-income families who don't have a ready supply of interesting or age-appropriate books at home.
Reading progress in the summer tends to break down along class lines. Nearly 40 studies document a pattern of children from low-income families losing ground -- an average of two months -- while those from middle-class families make slight gains, said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University. That disparity compounds over time and is a major contributor to the achievement gap, studies show. To bridge the gap, Fairchild said, school systems need to spend more, not less, on summer school and offer programs that are longer and combine academics with enrichment activities, such as field trips to museums.
Other research shows that school systems can make an impact even on a shoestring budget simply by increasing access to books. In a study published last year, more than 800 elementary school students from low-income families selected a dozen books to take home over the summer. After three years, and without any additional summer guidance from teachers, the students who received books scored higher on state reading exams than those who did not.
The idea was to provide books "so that any child who wanted to read a book on Saturday night or during July would have that chance," said Richard Allington, a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and co-author of the study.
The study found reading growth similar to that in a separate analysis of various summer school programs. In-class drills will make students to read, Allington said. But voluntary reading, an activity that can "give you goose bumps or make you start to cry," is essential to engaging students and turning them into lifelong readers, he said.
At Ervin's house, his mother, Matilde Rocha, keeps the living room shelves stocked with mostly picture books that she buys at yard sales or gets free from the pediatrician's office. Ervin said she often read with him when he started learning English. Now his language skills have overtaken hers. This summer, he has been reading on his own, looking up words he does not know and mailing postcards to his teacher.
At Westlawn Elementary, another school in the program, dozens of dispatches from readers arrived in July on bright blue and orange postcards. Students wrote about their favorite parts of books with such titles as "Mr. Klutz Is Nutz," "Miss Popularity" or "Who Was Harriet Tubman?"
They also sent details about their summer vacations, whether they were going camping or were cooped up with little brothers. One student signed off: "My summer is going grate. I am reading books."