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Turning parents into teachers to fight the ‘summer slide’ in reading

August 22, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
As the new school year approaches, teachers know that their students may have regressed over the summer. But one program has made strides in preventing summer learning loss by enlisting parents as partners to help teach children. Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports on Springboard Collaborative, a non-profit organization that makes parents and teachers into partners.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the new school year approaches, teachers have come to expect that many of their students will have forgotten some of what they learned earlier. It’s called summer learning loss, and some teachers believe it’s inevitable. Are they right?

Special correspondent for education John Merrow of Learning Matters reports.

SARAH PISANO, Springboard Teacher: Everyone, turn to page three, please.

JOHN MERROW: The traditional educator’s remedy for summer learning loss is more of the same, more hours and more days of classes and, of course, summer school.

SARAH PISANO: Now we’re on page four.

JOHN MERROW: But suppose there is another solution.

SARAH PISANO: Good morning, Springboard families. Please sign in.

JOHN MERROW: What if schools enlisted family members as partners to help teach the children? That’s what’s happening here at Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia. For five weeks this summer, Sarah Pisano helps 6- and 7-year-olds get better at reading.

SARAH PISANO: We are going to talk about our new reading tip, which is making predictions.

JOHN MERROW: While also teaching their parents or other family members ways they could help.

SARAH PISANO: We are coaches. OK? I’m a coach when they’re here and you’re their coach when you’re at home.

The parents come in on Wednesday mornings. And whatever skills we have been working on in class, I get to not only share that with the parents, but then have them practice it with the child.

Just to look at this one for an example.

JOHN MERROW: Pisano passes along techniques parents can use to get their kids interested in books.

SARAH PISANO: If we were looking at the picture, I would ask them first, what do you see?

The overlying arch of all of the workshops is asking effective questions while you’re reading with your child.

JOHN MERROW: Taking what she calls picture walks is one technique. Before reading, look at the pictures and talk about them.

SARAH PISANO: Hey, let’s look at this traffic light. Which one of those colors do we see on there?

CHILD: Red.

JOHN MERROW: She also teaches parents techniques for sounding out words.

SARAH PISANO: Can you practice the word sofa for me? Ready and go.

CHILDREN: Sofa.

SARAH PISANO: Again.

CHILDREN: Sofa.

JOHN MERROW: Amani Addison’s father, Christopher, joined her every Wednesday for the one-hour parent workshop.

What did they say, they’re going to make you teachers?

CHRISTOPHER ADDISON: Well, it was like a partnership. I guess it was a learning process for me and my daughter.

ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS, Springboard Collaborative: The love a parent has for their child is the single greatest and most underutilized natural resource in education.

JOHN MERROW: Alejandro Gac-Artigas is the Founder of Springboard Collaborative, the nonprofit organization that manages this summer reading program. Springboard serves kindergarten through third graders in low-income communities. This summer, it operated in 17 schools in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.

The program was inspired by Gac-Artigas’ discovery in October 2009, just two months into his teaching career, that his first graders had lost ground over the summer.

ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: I had assumed, as a first grade teacher without a scrap of confidence, that I was somehow un-teaching and damaging these children.

So, and I go to other teachers and I ask, what is going on? Why are they further behind? And everybody told me in this really matter-of-fact way, that’s just the summer slide. They spoke about it as if it were inevitable, that growing up poor, for every two steps forward you take during the year, you are going to take one step back.

JOHN MERROW: But Gac-Artigas, a 21-year-old rookie unschooled in the conventional wisdom about summer slide, didn’t buy it.

ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: And, ultimately, I began to realize that summer learning loss is a symptom of an even deeper problem, which is that low-income parents have been left out of the process of educating their kids. We approached their families as liabilities, rather than as assets.

JOHN MERROW: Determined to test his belief that parents and teachers should be partners, Gac-Artigas quit teaching and raised enough money for a pilot program in 2012. The results were promising and Springboard was launched.

ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: We had 94 percent of parents attend every single weekly workshop, learn how to teach their kids to read at home. Kids ended up not only avoiding the three-month regression, but making 2.8 months of reading progress during the summer.

JOHN MERROW: According to Gac-Artigas, the second year produced equally positive results.

ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: By tracking our kids over the course of a full calendar year, we have more than doubled their annual reading progress.

JOHN MERROW: Springboard Collaborative just finished its third summer. The schools select the students and assign teachers from their own staff to teach the classes. Springboard trains the teachers and manages the program, charging fees of up to $550 a student.

Making parents and teachers partners, giving parents reading strategies they can use at home, this may be unconventional, but according to these families, it works.

Do you find you actually use these strategies at home?

GREGORY HILL: Yes.

SOUTEAR POY: Yes, we do always.

JOHN MERROW: You both said, yes, yes.

GREGORY HILL: Yes, we do.

SOUTEAR POY: Yes. Yes, we do.

GREGORY HILL: Because — it helps because we try to use our old strategies that we had. They’re like, dad, we don’t do that no more.

DAWN ROBINSON: Look at the picture. Look at the picture if you don’t know it. Look.

CHILD: Clouds?

DAWN ROBINSON: Yes.

I have never been in a partnership like this before. It’s given me a lot to take back and teach my other grandchildren.

JOHN MERROW: It’s also helped Amani Addison. After her second year with Springboard, she has become a much better reader.

SARAH PISANO: She was struggling a lot with letter sounds. And what I noticed the most about her was, it was really hindering her confidence. She came back this year, and it is a different kid. The confidence she has is unbelievable.

JOHN MERROW: In addition to reading together, the program encourages parents to let the kids see them reading on their own.

CHRISTOPHER ADDISON: Right now, I’m reading a book about Obama. I haven’t read in a long time, so it was kind of actually fun for me to pick up a book and start reading, too.

SARAH PISANO: This is something fun that we have been doing in class.

JOHN MERROW: Gac-Artigas hopes to expand Springboard beyond the current number of schools and even offer it as a year-round program, but he face as tough challenges.

If I’m a school principal watching the program, maybe I say, hey, you know, I could do most of this stuff. I don’t have to bother with Springboard. Would that be OK with you?

ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: It would be fine with me. I want our national conversation around education to include families. Whether or not that includes Springboard is secondary. I want it to include families.

The reality, though, is that we have been able to amass kind of institutional knowledge about how to do this effectively in a way that most principals don’t want to worry about it at the end of a long school year.

JOHN MERROW: Nevertheless, Russell Byers’ new principle says the school may be better served by dropping Springboard. She told the NewsHour the school may run its own program next year to reach more students and cover more subjects, not just reading.