Evansville YMCA program aims to prevent summer learning loss in 1st, 2nd graders


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EVANSVILLE, Indiana — With a bright red-and-yellow chicken hat snug on her head, Mary Jo Huff instructed the kids to make their arms into "chicken wings" in preparation for the song and dance: "Chicken Fun."

Huff, a nationally known storyteller from Newburgh, sang the song she wrote with the 32 students enrolled in the YMCA Summer Learning Loss Prevention program. She also brought neon-colored feathers, googly eyes and sticker shoes for students to decorate their paper puppets.

This is the second year for the YMCA program where incoming first and second graders from Evans and Delaware schools participate in interactive activities with music and art for literacy enrichment at Evans School.

he six-week course started June 16, and activities include vocabulary skills, writing and self-guided reading; and afternoon enrichment with art, music, physical activities, nutrition/health, character development and a weekly field trip.

Because of a grant from the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana, Huff stops by the program twice a week to teach the students different ways to tell a story. She has helped the kids make a literary bag that holds different crafts they have made including spoon puppets, crowns, pipe cleaner props and drawings. She also has the kids write a word on a Post-it note each day, and at the end of the week the students will write a story with the words, making everyone an author.

Quaithan Pauley, 6, said he enjoys the physical activity in the gymnasium.

"We have fun," said the incoming Evans first grader.

Paisley Wilson, 6, enjoys the crafts, particularly the house made of food. Wilson said she can't wait until Thursday's field trip to the zoo; she wants to pet the goats. She will also be a first grader at Evans.

"I like to read because there are Ariel books and girls books," she told the Evansville Courier & Press (http://bit.ly/1omHJpJ ).

In 2013, the YMCA of Southwestern Indiana was chosen as one of 25 YMCA's across the country to pilot the program that targets reading levels to help prevent summer learning loss and encourage an interest in reading. At the conclusion of last year's pilot, which had 13 incoming first graders from Evans, most kids who completed the program showed improvement. The average reading level gain was four months; one student advanced her reading level by two years; while one other didn't improve, but also didn't fall behind.

YMCA senior youth development program director Diane Braun said organizers were thrilled Evansville was chosen alongside larger cities to show what the community could accomplish. The program has two certified teachers and two certified teacher assistants in the morning for the academic portions; while YMCA staff does most of the afternoon enrichment. Braun said Delaware was written into the grant this year because those students often have summer programs at Evans.

"I think the fact that this program is so well structured with the 2.5 hours in the morning being all about books — reading, writing stories, learning sight words — so they can do a better job with reading and understand what they are reading," Braun said. "And then the sharing, too, is what impresses me. Every morning there is an actual block of time where the kids share what they've read and you get to understand, 'OK, they comprehend. They know what they're reading.'"

In a letter YMCA of Southwestern Indiana CEO Derrick Stewart wrote to donors he noted statistics show a large number of children from low-income environments begin kindergarten unprepared and often continue to fall behind in school. This achievement gap widens, Stewart said, during the summer months

"At the Y, we believe that all kids have potential ... This program will improve their self-confidence, foster an interest in reading and will position them for success in the coming school year," he said.

A lending library is in the classroom where students can borrow books and then return them to get new ones. Each week has a theme, and the books students read, as well as arts and other activities, focus on that theme. Braun attributes the success of the program to this consistency.

Sean Kuykendall, YMCA community outreach branch executive director, said The Y of the USA will fund the program at Evans for one additional summer, and then the local chapter is expected to sustain it. The Y USA provided $30,000 last summer, $20,000 this summer and will give $10,000 next summer. Along with the funding, The Y also provided the curriculum and structure of the program. It costs about $25,000 per site, according to Kuykendall.

He stressed that the program is free to the students, and lunch plus a snack is provided. He said the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. also provides morning transportation. But he said it's a commitment because kids can only miss two days.

"The key piece is the parents have to do their job and make sure the kids show up," Kuykendall said.

Organizers plan to expand the program to Glenwood Leadership Academy and Chandler Elementary School next summer. Kuykendall said he's optimistic it will happen.

A STAR reading assessment is given to students the first week of the program and the last week to determine a child's reading level and monitor their progress. Braun is already confident improvements have occurred.

"I just see less hesitation on the kids' part when they're reading," she said. "They don't just stop if they don't know a word, they take the time to sound it out like we've been showing them. It's not an obstacle. They have realized that this word has parts to it that you just sound it out, and they get an understanding of it."


Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

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