Jayden Griffin is a little nervous about starting fourth grade in the fall because he has heard the words used in fourth grade lessons are tougher than in third grade.
So he's trying to prepare himself by attending, along with his mother Erica, a community summer reading camp, sponsored by the McKeesport Area School District.
But he's also there for another reason: "I really have a lot of fun here," Jayden said.
His mother also likes the program. "It gives him a chance to keep up with the flow of his reading during the summer," Ms. Griffin said. "And you don't have to go to the school district -- they come to you."
Jayden and his mother are among the 100 families who signed up to participate in McKeesport Area's community summer reading program. What makes the program different from other summer reading programs is the involvement of parents. School officials said they saw the need to include parents in the effort to get students to read at home during the summer months and to get pre-school students introduced to reading.
"We talk with parents about how to make flashcards and ask their children questions about a story," said third grade teacher Jessica Zuber.
The teachers also provide parents with support material on how to develop reading skills in children at each grade level, calendars that provide reading activities for each day of the month and a schedule of activities at the Carnegie Library of McKeesport.
It's part of the district's efforts to improve elementary reading proficiency, which research shows is directly linked to future academic success and is funded in part by federal Title I funds and a state Keystones to Opportunity grant the district received.
The program developed out of conversations elementary teachers had with elementary reading coordinator Amy Dellapenna last year after the district saw its state funds for summer tutoring cut. It started with a small pilot last summer with about 15 families whose children attended George Washington Elementary.
The feedback was so positive, the district decided to expand the program to include students from all elementary schools this year and to take the program to three locations to make it more accessible. Those locations are the Crawford Village Community Center, Renziehausen Park and the White Oak American Legion.
Participants come one morning a week during the time slots designated for their age group.
During the program sessions, children and their parents sit around teachers who read to the children, often stopping to ask for reactions or thoughts from the students. Afterward, the children and parents participate in a story-related activity, which can be a game or an art project.
During a recent session at the Crawford Village Community Center, students in Jayden's grade level listened to Ms. Zuber read a book called "Memoirs of a Goldfish" in which a fish gets frustrated sharing his bowl with others, moves to his own bowl, but then misses his neighbors and decides to rejoin them. Afterward, they drew pictures of a fish tank.
Children in younger grades heard the story about Clifford the Big Red Dog taking a vacation and then drew pictures of their own version of vacation scenes for Clifford along with playing tic-tac-toe with characters from the story.
It was 4-year-old Janae Dunge's first experience playing tic-tac-toe, but she caught on quickly, using her powers of concentration to match three in a row to win her first session. When Ms. Zuber asked if she wanted to play again, she nodded, saying: "And you can win this time."
Janae attended the program with her brother, Jordan, 6, who will enter first grade in the fall, and her mother Lori Davison.
Ms. Davison said her children like attending the program because they get to choose a new book to take home each week. Jordan picked a book about veterinarians and their animals and Janae picked "Olivia Forms a Band," whose main character, a female pig, forms her own band with pots and pans.
"The fact that they get a book really gives them something to look forward to," Ms. Davison said. For mom, the benefit of the program is any improvement it makes to her children's reading skills. "Anything I can do to help my kids I will do," Ms. Davison said.
Ms. Davison, Ms. Griffin and the program organizers lament the fact that more parents don't take advantage. Ms. Dellapenna said district officials' biggest frustration is the fact that only about 40 percent of the 100 families who have signed up actually attend.
District officials are considering two efforts to try to improve attendance for this year: Knocking on doors in the community to explain the program and the importance of summer reading, and holding an evening session for parents who work.
"We are trying everything that we can," Ms. Dellapenna said. "We're really trying to let parents know how important this is."
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590.