Getting kids to read in the summer has long been a challenge for many grown-ups. With outdoor activities, camps and family trips, too often books remain closed until the fall. For kids who are living in homelessness and in unstable home environments, the challenges can be even greater. A new summer literacy program in the Guilford County Schools is trying to change that. The goal is for students to maintain or even improve their reading level, build confidence and complete six books.
After breakfast in the cafeteria at Greensboro College about 50 fueled faces file into an exercise studio for an unconventional morning routine. Each weekday for the next month the literacy program begins with Harambee a Swahili word meaning “let’s pull together.”
There are chants, songs, call-and-response and lots of movement. The youngest children watch themselves move in the mirrors, along one wall. The rising high school students mostly watch their feet but are definitely involved. After the morning warm-up students separate into five groups to work on projects, plays and reading.
“Chic-a, chic-a, boom boom…A told b and b told c, I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree,” said five-year-old Samory. He is wearing a paper crown he made the day before. An adult helped him pronounce “Coconut”. The older classes are reading a book titled “Pinned” about a female wrestler and teenage relationships.
“I really like Adonis cause he was really chill back, wasn’t in anybody’s face, and really helped the mentally challenged kids,” said Jah, who starts high school this fall.
Samory, Jah and all of the children in this literacy program are living in transition, which means they don’t have stable housing. Some of the kids are living with relatives, others have recently been evicted and part of the group is living in shelters or cars. Susan Eubanks is the Supervisor of homeless and transitional services for Guilford County Schools. She says many of the children are hungry to learn and come from loving families.
"But at home, they don’t always get the parent support because when you’re worrying about where’s your next meal going to come from, your child’s education isn’t quite as important as basic needs. If you’re in a homeless or transitional situation school is your only stability,” said Eubanks.
There are more than 2,000 students living in transition throughout the district. The kids call this camp Freedom School. It’s funded by several grants and there are dozens of similar programs throughout the country. Eubanks says data from programs in Charlotte and Wisconsin indicates almost all students maintain grade reading level over the summer, with some progressing.
"I think that drop-out prevention starts in kindergarten. Because by the time they get into middle school and high school, if they’re going to head that track, they’re already well on the way,” added Eubanks.
Eubanks says developing better reading skills at a younger age will help children become better learners and allow them to experience more enrichment activities as they get older, instead of playing catch-up. She adds putting this summer literacy program on a college campus was done with the idea of giving kids a glimpse of what can come after high school. Another glimpse comes from teacher Airreia Pierce. She first heard the word evict when she was four. Her childhood was spent in transition and her family was homeless for part of the time she was in college.
"You don’t feel like you have something that is your own. Or you don’t have a sense of belonging. Or like you can put your work up on a wall and keep it there. You feel like you got to keep everything in a bag and move from place to place,” said Pierce.
Pierce became the first person in her family to graduate from college when she earned a degree from UNC-Greensboro. She earned a Master’s there and now teaches at a Guilford County elementary school.
"I definitely will share that with them just to give them hope, to know that. I’m no different than them. I made it and they can make it,” said Pierce.
Each week every group finishes a book. The kids then receive a copy of that book to take home and grow their own personal library. The hope is that literacy will improve, students will gravitate toward books; and a culture of reading will extend from the campus to the classroom and from classroom to home, wherever that may be.