About 250 children who attend YMCA after-school programs in Charlotte are picking up an extra dose of reading lessons this year.
And they seem to like it.
Consider the scene outside the Johnston YMCA in north Charlotte on Thursday. At 5:30 p.m., after a full day of school and 40 minutes of after-school reading, children stream onto the playground.
While others swarm the swings and slides, two kindergarten boys take pencils, notebooks and a recipe book and huddle at a picnic table, copying a recipe for chocolate-chip cookies. Their counselor, Satashia McKinney, knows theyre learning to write letters and recognize words. But what the boys care about is that they want to fill their notebook so they can bake cookies.
At this point in the day, anything you can do to get them excited is good, says Amanda Wilkinson, a former first-grade teacher who supervises the new reading program. They get it at school, but this is kind of a double dose.
The after-school classes are modeled on the YMCA of Greater Charlottes Y Readers summer program, which has been adopted as a model for YMCA of the USA.
More than 450 first- and second-graders completed the six-week summer program at sites in Charlotte, Lincolnton and Mooresville this year. Children who dont keep reading tend to lose ground during the summer, especially troubling for children who are already falling behind. The Y Readers averaged a three-month gain in skills, based on reading tests given at the start and end of camp.
No easy answers
The after-school lessons are a new feature at the Johnston, McCrorey, Simmons and Stratford Richardson branches, which serve students from some of Charlottes highest-poverty schools. Barely half are reading on grade level. Many come from Spanish-speaking families.
Getting poor and minority students up to par in reading has been an ongoing struggle for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other districts. CMS leaders have pinned high hopes on various efforts, such as prekindergarten, phonics-based reading and a recent intensive reading focus for K-2. But at many of the districts highest-poverty elementary and middle schools, reading pass rates remain near or below 50 percent.
The YMCA isnt claiming an easy solution. But it does offer extra time, lessons designed to feel like fun, a push for parental engagement and a strong base of potential volunteers.
Each branch offers four days a week of lessons that incorporate reading, writing and working with words, or phonics. Wilkinson, who used to teach at Nations Ford Elementary, has designed plans that counselors can follow.
Kiss your brain
Early last week at the Johnston Y, second-graders had found magazine photos showing something they like, then wrote about them. On Thursday, counselor Donnell Washington encouraged them to read their pieces aloud. One wrote about a Madea movie, another about how much she likes perfume.
Afterward he led them in spelling words. The children crouched on the ground to start, then rose a bit with each letter they called out. Motions like that help the lessons stick, Wilkinson explained.
McKinneys kindergarteners and first-graders were reading and singing about frogs. They made hand puppets out of bags, and will use them to act out a simple play.
Near the end of the day, she had them pick up short words written on slips of paper and decide whether they rhymed with ten, nine or five. When they got one right, shed call out Kiss your brain! The children kissed their hands and touched their foreheads.
Parents drive, volunteers help
The Y program emphasizes that parents must take charge of their childrens success in school, including reading with them at home.
Michael DeVaul, a senior vice president with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, says he tells parents theyre in the drivers seat, at least while their children are young: Put your hands on the wheel. We will help, but you have to drive.
Volunteers played a role in bolstering the summer reading program. In 2011, the summer camps had 26 volunteers. This summer, there were about 200.
By January, once the staff gets comfortable with the new program, the Y plans to start recruiting after-school volunteers. They have a strong base to tap, with about 270,000 members, volunteers and program participants throughout the region.
Im convinced the community wants to get involved, but they dont know how to, DeVaul said.
Eventually, the Y would like to expand the reading program to more branches.
Jemarion Young, who heads the Johnston site, says it has been popular. My parents love it, he said.
Angela Rollins says her son Cameron, whos in kindergarten at Shamrock Gardens Elementary, complained a bit about wanting to be outside more. But she and his teacher are already seeing benefits, she said.
Hes actually wanting to read more, she said.