Left, Daniel, Myrion, Leticia Irving and Billy read at Oakton Elementary School. Photo by Hannah Prokop

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In the multipurpose room of Oakton Elementary School, rising third-graders Athena and Santashia read books with reading volunteer and former School Board member and Oakton reading teacher Rose Johnson.

“We like coming here,” Santashia said.

This Summer Learning Program is sponsored by McGaw YMCA and funded by the YMCA of the USA, private donors and School District 65. This year, 100 students enrolled in the six-week program, lasting from June 24 until Aug. 1. Last year, 32 children participated in the pilot program at Oakton Elementary School, 436 Ridge Ave., and Foster Reading Center, 2010 Dewey Ave. This year, Washington Elementary School, 914 Ashland Ave., was added as a site to include more students.

The program is intended to address the problem of summer learning loss. Kenzi Huelskoetter, senior director of youth development at the McGaw Y, says that studies show children can lose two months of reading skills over the summer.

A press release from the McGaw Y says, “Research shows that by the end of 5th grade, children from lower-income families can be as much as 2.5-3 years behind middle-income children in terms of their academic achievement, in particular in their reading levels. At least two-thirds of this gap is caused by the long summer break.”

Adam Macedo, who has taught at Oakton for six years and taught for the first time this year in the Summer Learning Program, said he notices the learning loss that occurs during the summer.

“The best thing [about this program] is that it’s very cohesive, very structured and this population needs that structure,” he said.

The program runs Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Oakton and Washington schools. The program at Foster runs five days a week throughout the year. The students are rising first through third-graders and attend District 65 schools.

Students participating in the program have scored between the 30th and 50th percentile on the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment), a test given out during the school year, Ms. Huelskoetter said. They invite more children into the program than they can accommodate and the children are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis, she said.

The McGaw Y hires teachers and teacher’s aides from District 65 to run the program, along with Ms. Huelskoetter and site directors Stephanie Howard and Cody New. All teachers use the Four Blocks Literacy Model, which was the program chosen by YMCA of the USA. Ms. Howard, site director at Washington, described the schedule that the teachers must follow to the RoundTable.

The students arrive at 8 a.m. and are given breakfast. From 8:30 to 11 a.m., there is literacy instruction, which includes character development activities. The children also take five minute “brain breaks” throughout this time. At noon, students are fed healthy lunches, and then from noon to 4 p.m. there are different activities for each day of the week.

The day on which activities are held varies from site to site, but each site has a day for art, music and nutrition activities, field trips, swim lessons and gym time at the McGaw Y and beach trips.

“I think it’s a program needed across Evanston…a program that will embrace the total child,” Ms. Huelskoetter said.

Another part of the program includes volunteers reading with the students. Darlene Bowie was a reading volunteer last year, and came back again this year.

“I just believe in children trying to have as much experience as they possibly can with reading,” Ms. Bowie said.

In a classroom at Oakton, three students read in a classroom with their teacher’s aide, Leticia Irving, and teacher Kim Garcia. Ms. Garcia, who teaches at Oakton,  has taught the Summer Learning Program for two years.

Ms. Garcia explained how some of these students cannot afford to go to summer camps. The Summer Learning Program “keeps these kids engaged for six weeks out of the summer that they wouldn’t have had anything,” she said.

“It’s fascinating to see how they’ve grown,” Ms. Garcia added. Some students come in the program not knowing how to swim, but by the end of the program they are jumping in the pool without any floating devices. “They’re so proud of themselves,” she said.

Daniel, a rising first-grader, read a book out-loud in Spanish, with some help from his teachers. He flipped through the book to his favorite pictures. “Can I take this book home? I like it,” Daniel said to Ms. Garcia.

To track progress, students are tested two times during the summer, Ms. Howard explained. The Summer Learning Program has one class taught in Spanish at Washington. The test is computerized and they do not have access to it in Spanish, so the Spanish class must take a slightly different test, she said. Last year students were tested three times and according to the results, children advanced an average of two months in reading ability.

“The biggest change I’ve noticed is self confidence,” Ms. Howard said. “The kids don’t feel nervous to read out loud. The kids don’t feel nervous to be wrong. They don’t feel nervous to take a risk.”