The University of Iowa

Using Data, Professional Development, and Community Connections to Design a Successful Summer Reading Program

Q&A with Carly Gates

Posted on: July 10, 2018

The Council Bluffs Community School District is known in Iowa literacy education circles as a leader when it comes to summer reading programs. We at the Iowa Reading Research Center know about their successes firsthand. The IRRC has helped the district analyze student summer literacy data since 2015, and assisted in adjusting and improving the program on an ongoing basis. We have served as an external evaluator, collecting and analyzing teacher implementation and student outcome data, and have been continuously impressed with the district personnel’s dedication to using that information to make substantive changes to their reading instruction. To assist teachers and administrators who are looking to refine their summer programs or thinking about starting one, we decided to check in with Council Bluffs to find out more about their programmatic planning and the keys to making a summer reading program a success. We caught up with the program’s director, Carly Gates, for the following Q&A.

Q: What Motivated the Council Bluffs Community School District to Start Offering Summer Reading Programs to Students, and Has That Original Intent Changed in the Years You Have Provided the Program?

Carly Gates (CG): The Council Bluffs Community School District partnered with the Iowa West Foundation in 2009 to provide students with focused instruction and engaging activities over the summer months through a program called Summer Exploration. The ultimate goals were to help students continue to learn during the break and raise student achievement. In recent years, the focus has shifted to reading achievement specifically. Nationally, there has been a sense of urgency placed on the area of reading achievement, and as a district, we are striving to help students succeed in this area. We prioritize having participants in Grades 1 through 5 who are experiencing some reading difficulties.

Q: Why Was it Important for You to Evaluate Teachers’ Implementation of the Summer Reading Program and Students’ Reading Outcomes After Participating in the Program?

CG: As a school district, we are continuously working to improve the opportunities we provide for students. It is important for us to know our own strengths and weaknesses in order to continue moving our instruction forward and better serve our students. We have used specific assessments each year to measure whether or not students were benefiting from the summer reading program so that we could plan ways to change what we offered the next year. One of the changes we made last year was to implement new instructional materials. Therefore, we knew it was time to do a more intensive evaluation that included data on both student outcomes and teacher’s fidelity to the curriculum. This provided us the opportunity to dig deeper into the impact we were making on students’ reading achievement in order to ensure our instruction was meeting the needs of this high priority group that has already demonstrated some difficulties. It also gave us the chance to evaluate where teachers were in their implementation of reading instruction using the new materials, so that we could determine how to support them better with professional development.

Q: How Have you Changed the Program Components as a Result of the Evaluations Each Year?

CG: There were several action steps taken based on the program evaluations. Analyses of fidelity to implementation showed that, because the instructional practices included new program materials, lower than expected levels of fidelity were observed. In response to this, we first decided to begin the hiring process earlier and pay closer attention to summer teaching assignments. It was important to hire teachers who not only had experience with the district resources, but also to place those teachers in the grade level they had the most experience teaching. Next, we made sure to provide additional professional development focused on high-quality instruction. Lastly, the supplemental intervention model was revised based on the results of last year’s small-group instruction. The program is now using a consistent intervention model and pushing into classrooms (i.e., having interventionists deliver small-group instruction within the summer core reading class), instead of pulling out students from their core instruction to attend a separate intervention. This will allow for an increased amount of small-group instruction, delivered by both the core and intervention teachers, that is consistent across grade levels and classrooms.

Q: What Do You Consider the Biggest Success of the Summer Reading Program?

CG: The focus of the summer program is to increase students’ reading achievement. However, we want more than just pre- to post-summer program improvement. We want the summer school students to have statistically significant improvements when compared to students who did not participate in the program. This was one major success we saw last year. We saw some significant, positive effects for students in all but one grade level, and the greatest improvement was for the youngest students who have the best chance at closing the achievement gap with their better performing peers. The data shows we are headed in the right direction.

Q: What Are the Biggest Challenges of the Summer Reading Program and How Have You Tried to Address Them?

CG: Year after year, student attendance is the biggest challenge of summer programming. We understand that this problem is experienced in summer programs across the nation. Last summer, our average summer attendance rate was 60%. In response to this data, we have improved communication with parents, provided more incentives for students, and adjusted the dates and times when the program occurs. According to the study, the number of days students attended the program significantly improved scores for students. We know that students must be in the classroom in order to grow, and we will continue our efforts to make sure they are there.

Q: If There Were Five Tips You Could Provide Other School Districts Interested in Designing a Summer Reading Program, What Would Those Tips Be?

CG: I would keep the following five tips in mind.

  1. Form a strong team: Find people within your district who are committed to summer learning and who are passionate about establishing a program that will benefit individual students and the district as a whole.
  2. Establish a purpose for your program: It is important to be clear on the ultimate goal and what action steps you will take in order to achieve that goal. Determine the student data you will use to identify your targeted group of students. Ensure you have a strong pre- and posttest that will allow you to see the changes in performance students in the program experience.
  3. Choose an instructional method that will be implemented in all classrooms during the summer program: This may include being specific about the components of the program, the schedule, and/or the materials and resources that will be used.
  4. Reach out: Ask local businesses and community members what they can do to help support your program. There is no harm in asking, and you will be surprised at what they can offer. Talk to other districts who have implemented summer programs, and ask for any insight they may have about planning a successful experience for students.
  5. Make it fun! It is hot outside, and students probably would rather be at the pool than in school. In addition to the academic instruction, plan fun and engaging activities for students and staff to make sure they enjoy their time with the program.