KINGSTON, R.I. – June 20, 2019 – Summer vacation has arrived for many elementary school students. But those fun-filled days away from the classroom can leave many students – especially those who lack access to educational resources – behind when they return to school in the fall.
Studies have shown that on average, students’ achievement scores in reading and math can decline over summer vacation by up to three months’ worth of learning, and that summer reading loss is most pronounced among lower-income students.
But students in a University of Rhode Island political science class are helping to make a difference, partnering with a Providence elementary school to keep students academically focused over the summer.
Members of URI Professor Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz’s fall 2018 class recently presented each of the 99 second-graders at Asa Messer Elementary School with four books to read over the summer. In the program’s five years, students in the Education Policy and Public Service Internship class have donated more than 2,000 books to students at Asa Messer.
“Many schools have summer reading lists that encourage kids to read over the summer,” said Pearson-Merkowitz, an associate professor of political science. “The problem is that lots of low-income students can’t afford to buy those books or don’t have easy access to a library. So those kids end up losing proficiency in reading over the summer.”
Gina Sousa, reading coach at Asa Messer, says the program has been very promising. The school has seen less “summer slippage” in reading, and the students actually enjoy reading during summer break.
“This has been an overwhelmingly positive experience,” said Sousa. “The children are so excited to get their books, and when they return in September, many of them bring the books back to trade. They tell each other all about what they’ve learned from their books. It’s pretty amazing to hear the conversations in September.”
On June 14, Travis Doumaney, a student teaching assistant in the URI class, helped hand out the books to the second-graders with URI classmates Ana Nimaja and Shasterine De Los Santos. “The kids were all really excited to get the books and were bouncing around talking about how much they’d read them over the summer,” said Doumaney, of Tiverton, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in political science. “Overall, this was a success. Not only do the students get books, but they got more contact with URI, which may influence their likelihood to attend college.”
The focus of the URI project has shifted over the years, going from giving one summer reading book to each student in the school to targeting rising third-graders with several titles each. “We decided that choosing one grade level would be more beneficial,” said Sousa. “It’s crucial to focus on second-graders going into third grade. A huge transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ takes place between these two years.”
The program also gives the students a chance to choose their summer reading. This year, URI students set up a mock bookstore in the Asa Messer library so the second-graders could browse about 50 titles and choose their four books, which were handed out the last day of school. “We’re trying to set up a system,” said Pearson-Merkowitz, “where the students will likely read the books they’re given because they are picking ones that are appealing to them.”
Summer learning loss is one of the many issues addressed in the URI class. Students tackle such education policy issues as segregation, school funding formulas and teacher evaluations, using readings and podcasts to research and debate each topic. But each student also sees those challenges close up through a mentorship in a public school, and by taking part in an “action project” where they can raise money for a cause of their choice – such as summer learning loss.
“You don’t make changes by writing papers or taking tests,” said Pearson-Merkowitz. “Fundraising – whether or not you’re raising money for books or to fund a political candidate – is a key component to organizing for change.”
While most in the class focus their efforts on the Asa Messer book drive, students have also raised money for autism diagnosis in schools and school supplies. Fundraising ideas have also taken many forms, from grant writing, to hosting a volleyball tournament, to organizing author readings.
The importance of the project, Pearson-Merkowitz said, is to provide students with important “soft” skills such as time management, organization, team work, and communication – whether or not the fundraiser raises a single dollar.
For her fundraiser, De Los Santos, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in political science, held a Halloween costume sale last October on the Quad. The Providence resident used her connections as fundraising chair for the campus multicultural group Pink Women to help organize the event, including soliciting donations of costumes and accessories.
“I learned a lot about planning and execution, all those hands-on things you don’t necessarily learn in a traditional classroom setting but are very applicable to every sort of field,” she said. “I know if I had more time to plan I probably would have made more because we sold pretty much everything in two hours.”
Sheila Bautista ’21, a double major in political science and human development and family studies, also found the project challenging. She had to switch her plan from selling homemade pastries on campus to selling donuts.
“Overall, my project helped me learn more than expected,” the Providence resident said. “My goal was harder to achieve than I had envisioned because I didn’t plan for the challenges that came up, but I was very satisfied with the results despite being frustrated.”
De Los Santos had previously done a semester-long project with Pearson-Merkowitz on the impact of summer reading loss, so the goal had a special meaning. “The project itself was very demanding in almost all aspects,” said De Los Santos. “I had to figure everything out within a two-week span, which is not much time. But just thinking about why we were doing it made it worth it. The purpose was really what drove me to work so hard to make it happen.”