summer reading

Hoping to reduce summer learning loss, city turns to iPads loaded with books

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Emolior Academy Principal Derick Spaulding during the kickoff of SummerSail in 2014.

Sarita Parrales didn’t read at all last summer. And when it came time to start seventh grade, she remembered having to scramble.

“I felt like I was behind the whole class,” said Parrales, who will enter eighth grade at Emolior Academy, a public middle school in the South Bronx, this fall. “Then around like December or November, I was starting to catch up.”

Parrales described the setback this week at a Union Square bookstore, where she declared that this summer had been different: she had read a book from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, the childhood memoir of the writer Walter Dean Myers, and four others.

The difference this summer was a growing pilot program that sends New York City students home for the summer with iPads loaded with a digital library and software that tracks their reading. The program, now in its second year, is one of a number of ways the city is continuing to tackle a perennial problem: The fact that low-income students fall further behind than their peers from affluent families over summer break.

Nine weeks off from school are replaced with books from home or structured summer programs for some children, but for many others the break means going months without having anything to read — which can lead to a phenomenon known as “summer slide.”

“It’s very real,” said Sam Dorrance, a teacher at Emolior Academy. “And a lot of times, if they continue doing that year after year, reading doesn’t seem like something you get better at. It ends up appearing as though it’s just not something that’s for you.”

Emolior Academy was one of 18 schools and three community-based organizations that participated in the iPad-based program, called SummerSail, provided by the company LightSail. (CEO Gideon Stein is also on Chalkbeat’s board.) About 400 students received tablets loaded with novels, nonfiction books, poems, and articles tailored to their reading levels and were tasked with reading for four hours a week.

Students then met with teachers like Derrance every Monday for about four hours. He required them to write at least one “digital sticky note” about the book they were reading, asking a question or offering a summary or review.

It’s a structure that makes sure students have things to read that make sense to them, said Yolanda Rice, a reading coach at M.S. 385 in Brooklyn. Even for students who do have access to books at home, what’s available “might be too high or too low, or just the library that they have in their home is not diverse enough,” she said.

Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Learning Association, said programs like SummerSail and lower-tech book distributions can’t be expected to help students close big gaps in their reading skills. But they can maintain skills as students progress to the next grade level.

“The lowest-income students lose two to three months of their reading skills,” Pitcock said. “To have that evaporate over the course of the summer is huge.”

The pilot program has been available to schools in the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which aims to bring high-needs students up to grade level in reading and writing. Since 2012, initiative has provided schools with funds to lengthen the day, add tutors, train teachers, and buy books. (MSQI will grow to 108 schools, from 87, next year, the city announced Wednesday.)

Whether SummerSail specifically will help students hold onto those skills isn’t yet clear. The city has not completed an analysis of the program, and LightSail is working with Johns Hopkins University to conduct a study that will compare participants’ skills in June and September of this year to those of a control group of similar students.

Parrales, for one, said she still preferred reading “real” books. Her tablet required Internet access and did not have enough of a selection of anime, her favorite genre.

But she said she knew through experience that students who “don’t really read over the summer fall behind when they come back from school.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”