Imagine spending five days a week for nine months working on a project, taking three months off and returning to find most of what you had accomplished undone. It’s the scenario that many local elementary educators face every year when it comes to teaching reading.
Students are immeasurably more important than any project, and literacy is never a solo pursuit. But the fact remains that the majority of Wingate Elementary students experience reading regression during the summer months of a half grade level to one-and-a-half grade levels. It’s a problem that Wingate University and Union County Public Schools are tackling with support from The Mebane Foundation and the OMNOVA Solutions Foundation.
Started in 2017, the Wingates United (Wingate Elementary plus Wingate University) Summer Reading Academy not only works with at-risk students on important skills such as phonics and spelling, but the academy trains teachers in the Orton-Gillingham approach, a structured and multisensory method that works well with struggling readers. They practice the tutoring model with a 3:1 student-teacher ratio during the summer and then take what they’ve learned back to their classrooms.
This year, the Summer Reading Academy reached more than 60 students during three week-long sessions in late July and early August. Students in kindergarten through third grade who were reading below grade level were invited with the goal of increasing their reading ability by 15 percent. Another goal of the program is to continue to develop a specially trained pool of teachers — some already teaching in Union County Public Schools and others enrolled in Wingate bachelor’s and master’s degree programs — who are skilled at reading assessment and in the Orton-Gillingham approach.
Now that summer is over and the school year has begun, the focus will shift to an after-school tutoring program led by trained Wingate University students, with the hope of keeping the momentum going. Reading Academy students’ skills will be tested in December to assess growth in phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, word reading growth and spelling growth. Organizers hope for at least a 15 percent increase in each area.
Although the work is happening at the elementary school, its impact is expected to be long-lasting. Research shows that one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade fail to graduate on time, four times the rate for those on grade level. Add poverty to the mix, and the failure rate rises: 35 percent of poor third-graders who struggle with reading won’t don a mortarboard with their peers. That’s one reason the work at Wingate Elementary is so important. It’s a high-poverty school where 86 percent of students receive free or reduced-cost lunches.
“This demographic is not reading at home, so we feel really good about helping them not fall back a grade-level or more over the summer,” says Glenda Bebber, Wingate’s dean of academic support services and one of the Wingates United founders. “It’s usually two steps forward, one step back.”