By Kristine Hazzard, President and CEO, Berkshire United Way
To succeed in school and life, children, as well as young adults, need ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential skills. This is particularly true when school is not in session.
Many look forward to the arrival of summer, and the happy, more carefree lifestyle that may accompany it— family trips to museums and libraries, experiential learning on family vacations and weeks spent at summer camps filled with enriching activities—unfortunately, not all children face idyllic summer months. When the final bell of the academic year rings, numerous children struggle to access educational opportunities, as well as basic needs such as healthy meals and adequate adult supervision.
Studies have shown that most students lose math skills over the summer. In addition, students from low income families lose over two months of reading achievement, in contrast to their middle-class peers who make slight gains. In Berkshire County, 23.9% of families are low-income according to the most recent data from Berkshire Benchmarks.
Berkshire United Way leads the Pittsfield Promise and Chapter One…Our Towns, Our Kids, Our Future, early literacy coalitions supporting families in Pittsfield and south county. These early literacy initiatives are committed to helping our kids stay engaged in learning all summer long.
We know, from experience, that supporting summer learning opportunities provide positive results. Based on their proven success last year, the following programs will be supported by Berkshire United Way again this summer.
Thirty-six students who participated in Project Connection’s summer program—a collaborative program created by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District—were measured by Benchmark Assessment System testing in both May and September 2015. Of those students, 34 maintained or advanced in reading levels instead of experiencing summer learning loss.
In partnership with Berkshire County Head Start and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, a Summer Lunch and Learn program developed by Berkshire United Way will be offered through the Pittsfield Public Schools’ Food Service program lunch sites. Lunch is free for all children under the age of 18; parents pay the price of a regular school lunch. Professional educators will offer literacy programming geared toward preschool/elementary-aged children and parents one day a week at Conte and Morningside elementary schools as well as at Dower Square and Wilson Housing Developments. Last summer 60 families were reached and parents reported a 50% increase in reading to their children at least three times a week.
In 2015, the Pittsfield Family YMCA introduced Bright Futures, a summer literacy program that targets children enrolled in grades two through five in Pittsfield Public Schools who are reading below grade level. Thirty-seven children attended the program and 61% of those children maintained or improved their reading level.
Last summer, the Pittsfield Family YMCA/Marilyn Hamilton Literacy Sports Program, led by Manny and Vanessa Slaughter, reached 100 children ages 5 through 19, with 90% of these children living in low-income, under resourced, households. One hundred percent of the students who attended the program at least three days a week, either maintained or improved their literacy skills. Participant Zy’Nasia Cooper said, “I think it is the best place to be while you are on summer vacation. You can motivate yourself and you won’t be bored. One thing I love to do is have fun and learn at the same time.”
The Word of the Day (WOD) calendar is celebrating its fourth year—and we are introducing a younger sibling—WOD Preschool Edition. WOD is designed to build vocabulary throughout the summer to help children build literacy skills. The Preschool Edition is designed to help children understand words in their everyday lives. WOD calendars will be distributed in mid-June, and the preschool edition will debut in July. We encourage local businesses and offices to post the calendars in their office and on their Facebook page.
You’ll also find 50 Berkshire Book Houses in 24 communities throughout the County. These book houses were created to give families the opportunity to pick up or drop off free books any time of day or night, all year long.