Juan Galvez is going into 4th grade. His parents are from Bolivia and Guatemala, and they only speak Spanish.
When it comes to homework, Juan is usually on his own.
“My mom helps me a little because she knows the math,” says Juan. “But with reading, I’m good. I do it by myself.”
In Ft. Lauderdale, students learning English are getting free help with reading this summer. A six-week camp called Aprendo Porque Juego Summer Camp (“I learn because I play”) has been growing steadily since it was founded four years ago. Now, because of changes in Florida testing requirements, these kids are being challenged to learn reading and writing faster.
Most of the campers attend nearby public schools, and many come from low-income families who make less than $200 a week.
Statistics show that kids can lose a couple of months worth of reading gains during summer break. The loss is even worse for kids learning English.
In past years, the state gave English language learners two years before their FCAT scores counted toward their school’s overall letter grade.
Now, they only get one year.
The overall grade matters because chronically-failing schools which may be shut down, and teacher evaluations and salaries are affected by the grades, too.
Deb Greene, a Broward County public school teacher who also teaches at the camp, says “The purpose of our program is to prevent this summer reading loss that is so detrimental to these kids.”
At the beginning and end of camp, kids are given a reading assessment used by the Broward County school system. Greene says the results show reading scores improve by an average of 22 percentage points over six weeks. Some students show dramatic gains. One scored 40 percent on the initial test and left six weeks later with a perfect score.
“I don’t exactly know if it’s exactly because we have a great way of teaching,” says Greene. “I think that it’s because the kids show up everyday, and they’re engaged everyday, and they will learn if they’re exposed to something.”
A handful of students showed no improvement during the course.
More Than Just a Test
Carmen Mendez, Juan’s mom, volunteers in the camp lunchroom.
In Spanish, she says it’s frustrating not being able to help her children with their homework. She says she relies on programs like this camp to fill the void.
Lupita Leon is going into 3rd grade. Her parents are from Mexico.
“My mom knows Spanish, but I’m learning her to read in English,” says Lupita, who struggles with reading.
Teacher Kris Marsolek says it’s easy for kids like Lupita — English language learners, also known as ELL’s — to fall through the cracks.
“Teachers are taxed,” she says. “They have ELL students; they have students that are reading below level; they have students that have qualified with learning disabilities and behavior issues. ... So to reach everyone, it’s doable, but it’s hard.”
The teachers who volunteer at the camp say many of their students can read well, but don’t understand what they’re reading well enough to explain what a book or passage is about.
Teachers say getting them to make that connection takes time.
Supplies and other expenses for the program are covered by grants. The camp is run by dozens of volunteers who hope others will be inspired to recreate the program elsewhere.
Rev. Rosa Lindahl-Mallow started the camp at the New River Regional Ministry. During outreach efforts in the Latino community, she found families living below the poverty level and kids struggling academically.
“If you can read, the world opens up for you,” says Lindahl-Mallow. “It is the single most important door that we think we can open to our children to break out of the poverty cycle. It’s one way that we know that we can really transform these children’s lives.”