Leticia Irving assists Ne Aira during a morning session of the summer reading program.RoundTable Photo

The McGaw YMCA piloted its “YMCA Summer Learning Program” at Oakton Elementary School this summer. The six-week program served 32 students who had just finished kindergarten or first grade at Oakton and who were identified as needing additional support in reading and literacy skills. The program is designed to help close the achievement gap between children from economically disadvantaged families and those from middle-income families.

Citing a study, “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap” (2007), the McGaw Y said in a prepared statement that by the end of fifth grade, children from lower-income families can be as many as 2.5 to 3 years behind middle-income children in terms of their academic achievement. “At least two-thirds of this gap is caused by the long summer break,” said the McGaw Y.

“A typical middle-income child will advance about one month in reading level over the summer,” said the McGaw Y. “But the economically disadvantaged child falls back about two months in reading level over the same period.”

The YMCA Summer Learning Program is designed to address these issues.  Kenzi Huelskoetter, school-age director of the McGaw Y, who oversaw the summer program, told the RoundTable that a morning session consisted of 2.5 hours of literacy work, followed by 4.5 hours of enrichment in the afternoon to give the children experiences they would not otherwise have, such as swimming lessons, health education, art and music, science and personal development. The lead teachers, Kim Garcia and Cody New, are D65 teachers.

Parents of children in the program were required to pledge to read to their children 20 minutes a day, Ms. Huelskoetter said. Parents were also required to attend two workshops where they were taught literacy games they could play with their children and provided tips on how to make literacy part of the home.

The YMCA reported the pilot program had positive results. Children advanced an average of two months in reading ability during the six-week program, as shown by pre- and post-testing using STAR, a computer adaptive test, said Ms. Huelskoetter. This same group of kids would typically have dropped back two months during the course of the summer, so there was a net gain of four months.

 In addition, in response to a parent survey, 99% of the parents reported that their children were more excited to learn, 95% said their children’s reading skills had improved, 100% said their child’s self-confidence improved, 98% said they read more to their children, and 100% said they were satisfied with the program, said Ms. Huelskoetter.

Another goal of the program is to teach children to swim and to build their self-confidence. The Y reported that none of the 32 kids in the program could swim at the start of the summer, but by the end of the program they had all learned to swim. This was a huge boost to their self-confidence, said Ms. Huelskoetter.

The McGaw YMCA will be working to find ways to continue the program at Oakton school next summer and to expand it to include 48 students. The McGaw YMCA also plans to explore the possibility of expanding the program to additional schools in District 65 next summer; the District has expressed preliminary interest in doing so, said Ms. Huelskoetter.

There is no cost to families to participate in the summer program. The pilot was funded by a grant from the YMCA of the USA and by private donors. The Y of the USA will likely fund the program next year, said McGaw Y, but additional funds will be needed to cover the cost at Oakton and any expansion of the program. The McGaw Y will likely seek additional funding to operate the program, which costs about $1,300 per student.

“Overall it was a great program,” said Ms. Huelskoetter. “It was neat to see the growth in the individual students. We also built up self-confidence in the kids which will help the community.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...