​Read to Be Ready Program in Jeopardy

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

In 2017, officials with the Dollar General Literacy Foundation signed a check for $1 million to finance Tennessee’s Read to be Ready summer programs. That money was to fund summer camps across the state for the next three years through grants to individual schools.

With summer 2019 coming to a close, the future of the program is uncertain, in spite of data showing less than half of third and fourth graders in Tennessee reading on grade level. Statistics rally against those students — making them four times less likely to graduate from high school.

For Barbara King, questions around the program’s future bring up concerns for students across the state. King is a first grade teacher and curriculum and instruction coach at Sewanee Elementary and director of SES’s Read to be Ready camp, Camp Curiosity.

Spanning the month of June, Sewanee Elementary hosted Camp Curiosity, a branch of the state’s Read to be Ready program. The program, which was established in 2016, was created with the mission to develop students into thinkers, problem-solvers and lifelong learners.

“This has been so beneficial for our students, and our community. Our kids always love it, and it’s really sad to not know whether we will be able to do this again next year,” King said. “The program gives them experiences during the summer as far as interacting with others, character education, STEAM activities and working on literacy. They are getting so many experiential learning activities. They have so many opportunities to be read aloud to, and every student gets to take home about 20 books as a part of the grant. We’re devastated that funding has run out. This program really has shown great gains for the state.”

Grant funding pays for field trip transportation, and the University of the South provides breakfast and lunch through the Summer Food Service Program of the South Cumberland Community Fund. At breakfast and lunch, volunteers read aloud to the students for 15-30 minutes.

“The grant has been discontinued, which means the department will have to review the data collected from this year’s camps to decide where we go from here,” said Jennifer Johnson, Director of Communications in the Commissioner’s office at the Department of Education.

Johnson said that process will involve looking at how many students participated in the program in 2019, tracking the progress students made and determining whether the return on investment is high enough to continue funding the programs.

King first learned about the Read to be Ready grant opportunity in a newsletter from former Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. Though she had never written a grant proposal before, King got to work. That summer, rising first through third graders came to the camp and were engaged daily in activities to strengthen the levels at which they were able to read.

Inspired by the previous year’s success, King not only reapplied last year, she hosted a workshop to encourage other local schools to apply as well.

Pat Wiser has volunteered to read aloud to the students for the last two years. Wiser, who previously worked as a high school teacher and librarian, said she knows the importance of providing students a space during the summer to maintain the learning from the school year.

“I’m very, very concerned that this has not been renewed for next year. Kids lose ground over the summer in their reading and other skills. This program is designed to enhance and improve the reading skills of kids who might not be quite up to grade level,” Wiser said.

Wiser also said numbers and test scores aside, the benefits of the program are palpable.

“I have followed some children through from being in this program and volunteering in the library, and I can think of specific children I worked with in first grade who now are fourth graders. They are doing so much better, and the fact that they are now coming to the library speaks for itself. I don’t have that data. I just have seen the confidence,” she said.

Johnson said once the data from the year is reviewed, a decision would be made.

“If the data shows the camps to be overwhelmingly valuable, I think it’s probably safe to say that we will find another revenue source to fund them. Before making a commitment, it is important that we have a very clear understanding of exactly how valuable they are. It may be possible that some portions of the camp were more valuable than others. If that’s the case, we might be able to fund an initiative that looks different from what currently exists, without losing any of the benefits,” Johnson said.

“It sounds like they are aware of the benefits of the program, but it does not sound promising to me about continued funding,” King said.