At a rural church just south of Charlotte, a dozen children sit cross-legged on the cool linoleum floor inside the fellowship hall. They’ve come for a summer book club meeting, and they’re listening to a story about a bear with the sniffles.
“What did the forest animals do when Bear started feeling sick?” asks their teacher, Lisa Gallowitch. A few hands go up. “Remember how we talked about our summer brains? Let’s put our thinking caps on and see what we can learn from Bear’s friends.”
As the children divide into groups, Gallowitch, the lead teacher, explains that the literacy program at Union Grove United Methodist Church is now in its sixth year. Four of the five leaders are full-time, certified school teachers. They use an evidence-based instructional program, and they’ll assess reading levels at the start of the summer and at the end.
“We’d like to see improvement,” she says. “But at the very least, we hope to help them avoid the summer slump and keep them from falling behind.”
The Need is There
If students aren’t learning during the summer, research shows they can lose ground academically. “The loss of knowledge and educational skills during the summer months is cumulative,” according to one report, “and further widens the achievement gap between low- and upper-income students.”
For children in rural areas, the problem can be even more challenging. Remote communities have a dearth of summer-based education programs – and the few that exist are designed for urban settings. In North Carolina, literacy rates are estimated to be 25 percent lower in rural areas than in urban centers.
To help boost reading levels, The Duke Endowment is supporting efforts like the one at Union Grove and at other rural United Methodist churches in North Carolina. Since 2008, through its Rural Church program area, the Endowment has awarded nearly $1.6 million in grants for summer enrichment and after-school tutoring.
“When it comes to literacy and the achievement gap, the statistics can be alarming,” says Robb Webb, the Endowment’s Rural Church director. “But we’ve learned that enhancing literacy is a relatively straight-forward endeavor. It requires one-on-one attention – and the one thing that churches have is people. They have volunteers who can work with children. They have facilities that can accommodate children. They often have playgrounds that children can play on. We’re looking for churches with a commitment to their community, and we want to align them with this deep need.”
A Committed Group
One intervention – The Ubuntu Academy – began this summer as a pilot at Monticello United Methodist Church in rural Iredell County.
Launched by Chantalle Carles when she was a Fellow at the Endowment, the Ubuntu Academy brought together skilled reading teachers, third to fifth grade students who struggled with reading, and a church family for a six-week camp experience. The goal was to help the students enjoy their summer while also growing in literacy skills. The Endowment supported the program with a $75,000 grant.
At the end of the pilot, results were impressive. Of the 35 Ubuntu "scholars," the average growth in reading ability was more than six months. Third graders gained four months of reading ability on average, while fourth graders gained seven months and fifth graders gained nine months. Anticipated reading growth at the outset of the program had been two to five months.
“Those kids will go back to school with far more confidence, and we believe they’ll have a far better chance to excel and succeed,” Webb says. “And the church played a significant role.”
At Union Grove, in Union County, a $15,000 grant from the Endowment helped expand an ongoing program. This summer, the church offered a week-long session in June, three book club meetings through the summer, and then another week-long program in August. Designed for kindergarten through fifth grade, the effort exposes children to reading and makes books accessible.
“When children come to school reading below grade level, it affects everything,” says the Rev. Bob Sturge, Union Grove’s pastor. “They don’t understand word problems in math. They struggle with vocabulary in science. Reading is fundamental.”
Sturge knows how kids struggle when they fall behind. Ten years ago, when he turned 55, he became a part-time pastor and a full-time fifth-grade teacher. Although he’s now retired from the classroom, his wife is an elementary school principal.
“The summer slump is real,” he says. “But if you have a committed group, this is something that even a small church can do.”
Webb agrees. “We believe literacy is a place where we can make a significant impact in North Carolina,” he says. “And churches can lead the way.”
In “Helping Your Child Become a Reader,” the U.S. Department of Education offers tips on how parents can support their children in literacy.
Kristen R. Richardson-Frick
Program Officer, Rural Church