Collaborating to cut Delaware’s low-income school achievement gap

Catherine Lindroth has had a singular mission the last five summers — reducing the huge achievement gap in Delaware between low-income children and those of means.

Her ground zero is Wilmington, where the Yale-educated former Teach for America administrator has steadily grown her Summer Learning Collaborative.

“Our education system needs help in Delaware,” Lindroth said recently while touring the Walnut Street YMCA, one of the program’s 12 sites in the city, where many elementary and middle schools are struggling to educate poor students.

“We are seeing kids who are dropping out, kids who are seniors in high school and can’t write paragraphs, kids in fifth grade who don’t know the alphabet. That should not be happening down the street from here.”

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To that end, the so-called Summer Collab has married itself to established day camps at institutions such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. Along with the Wilmington sites, there are two in Sussex County.

So between swimming and dancing and crafts, students are tutored in reading, math, science, even engineering. The emphasis is on learning to think critically, to be creative and persistent, all while having fun.

“It could be coping skills and having them identify with their sense of self,” said Nancy Aragbaye, a program director. “It could be reading intervention to make sure they are on target for school. And just leadership skills as well.”

Lindroth says research shows that affluent students improve over the summer, but low-income children go backward. “Two-thirds of the academic achievement gap is happening in the summer,” she said.

Reversing the summer learning loss

So, using certified teachers and high-achieving high school and college students, the program immerses children in academics. Lindroth says nearly nine in 10 reversed summer reading loss last year, with big gains in sight word recognition, vocabulary and phonics.

In one reading class, an instructor tells a student: “Look at your picture. What do you see?”

“Bunny,” the child replies.

“What’s another word for bunny?”

“Rraabbb …” the child begins, trying to sound out the letters on the page. “Ra…rra a bit.”

“Rabbit!” the teacher exclaims. “Good job.”

Quadir Salahuddin, a student camper, says he has improved this summer in English.

“I have trouble in reading,” he said. “I go down to Miss Debbie on the computer. It helps me read and helps me with all the short vowels.”

At East Side Charter School, which borders the city’s Riverside and Eastlake public housing projects, students in one class work with balloons, string and markers for a project about flight.

“So we’re just trying to figure out how this is going to thrust itself from me to you.

Let’s see if this works,” an instructor says while holding up a balloon.

He lets out the air and the balloon sputters around the room briefly before plummeting, leading the children to boo politely.

“But does it have thrust?” he asks them.

They nod their heads yes.

Progress is also being made in self-discipline and emotional development, crucial components of classroom success.

“The camp is helping my behavior,” said Neasia Bailey. “We have to be good and do leadership and all that to get trophies and prizes. We talk to the behavior specialist, and he tells us how to be our self.”

Aragdaye says the summer immersion is especially critical for students from broken families, who live in poverty or have been frequently exposed to crime.

“And knowing that these are things in their communities and not making excuses for it but how do you persevere over that,” she said.

The program, which Lindroth hopes will become a national model, was one of four nationwide honored last month by the National Summer Learning Association.

But for young Quadir, the program has also given him a tool, a primitive telescope he made in class and uses at home for inspiration and awe on hot summer nights.

“I like just looking at the sky” he said, “to see if there any shooting stars.”

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