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Lead story: Reading program at P.A. Walsh boosts confidence of students

Significant improvements shown by children who go through YMCA’s Summer Achievement Program

Published in the July 20 – Aug. 2, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo by Marty Cheek Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center volunteer Lindsey Shepard holds Luna as Anna Venneman, educational outreach coordinator tells the summer reading program students about the great horned owl.

Photo by Marty Cheek
Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center volunteer Lindsey Shepard holds Luna as Anna Venneman, educational outreach coordinator tells the summer reading program students about the great horned owl.

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all,” said Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Learning to read words in books and other publications and turn them into ideas can be one of the most difficult but important journeys of the mind a child will ever face. Many local children have a frustrating time mastering reading skills, so the Mt. Madonna YMCA Summer Achievement Program was started two years ago to give extra assistance to Morgan Hill first and second graders with below-grade reading ability.

This summer, 36 students participated in the six-week program. Among them were Khloe Klamm and Juan Dominguez, both 7 and in second grade. They enjoyed their summer activities at P.A. Walsh STEAM Academy where the program was held, starting the day at 8 a.m. and being picked up by their parents at 4:30 p.m.

The hours were filled with many activities in reading as well as getting to meet some of the leaders of the community such as police officers, firefighters and volunteers with Morgan Hill’s Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center showing them various wild animals. There are social activities for the kids, too. For Dominguez, the best part of the day is playing games, such as banana tag, on the campus playground. But he also likes to crack open a book and discover the adventure waiting for him on the pages.

“The best part of reading is learning,” he said. It’s important to learn to read, he said, “so you can learn more words.”

From left, Kenia George, Khloe Klamm, and Devin Cisneros participate in storytelling for their friends in the  Reader Theater play "Doing the Dinosaur Dip." Photos by Marty Cheek

From left, Kenia George, Khloe Klamm, and Devin Cisneros participate in storytelling for their friends in the Reader Theater play “Doing the Dinosaur Dip.”
Photo by Marty Cheek

Khloe enjoys the more creative activities of the YMCA Summer Achievement Program. “We do arts and crafts. We learned about bees today. If we didn’t have bees, then we won’t have plants and we will die because there is no food.”

She enjoyed meeting Morgan Hill Mayor Steve Tate because he gave the children coloring books, she said. And Dominguez was impressed with the uniformed cop who visited the children because he was friendly and drove in a big black SUV. “He turned the siren on. It was loud,” he said.

Wendy Brotherton has two children going through the summer program, Giselle Sanchez, 7, and Oscar Sanchez, 5. The two will be attending Barrett Elementary School this coming school year and their mother has observed their interest in reading books has grown dramatically over the course of the last few weeks due to their involvement.

“They’re more active in reading. They want to read. It’s been good in helping to prepare for next year when they go to school again,” Brotherton said. “It helps the kids open up and be more social. It helps them with their academics and teaches them how to be able to socialize and communicate with other children. There are so many benefits, I can keep going.”

She recommends the summer program for parents with children who have reading issues. “My kids love it. They get to go to the library. They get to go to the Aquatics Center. Everything is just a big adventure for them.”

Summer Achievement originally started in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a summer learning program where teachers in the schools started working with the YMCA to try to find a way of doing their own YMCA-led summer school, said Michael Shoesmith, site director for the P. A. Walsh Steam Academy Summer Achievement Program.

Summer-Achivement-2program-“They came up with the four blocks model which is basically working on literacy by working with words, writing, guided reading and kids choice reading,” he said. “That was a huge success off the bat, and so they worked on improving it and it’s been spreading across the nation.”

It came to San Jose five years ago and now there are 12 sites in the Silicon Valley, with Morgan Hill being the first in South Valley. The YMCA asks Morgan Hill Unified School District kindergarten and first-grade teachers which students in their classrooms can benefit the most from a reading program during the summer break. The YMCA then approaches the parents to see if they want to get their children involved.

The students are given reading ability tests at the start and finish of the six-week program using the Renaissance Learning test website. They are tested in spelling, writing and phonetics. An eight-page detailed report is then generated for each child to show how much he or she has improved by the end of the program. Last year’s program showed a substantial learning achievement in reading for the students.

Summer-Achivement-3program-

Three students of the Summer Achivement Program mug for the camera. Photo by Kenia George

“The national average last year for this program was about a 64, 65 percent significant improvement on their reading levels,” Shoesmith said. “The P.A. Walsh site had about 75 percent of the students improve a significant amount. We’re really happy about that.”

The program boosts the academic confidence in the children for the coming school year, helping them learn better in the classroom environment.

A big component of the program is that the students are taken to the library every week and encouraged to pick out books they want to read, Shoesmith said.

“Not only do we teach kids to read better, another thing we strive to do is help them discover a passion for reading. They learn why reading is fun and why it’s important,” he said.

Social learning is another important aspect of the program. Through the Reader Theater activity, the students are handed small books that have a play written with various roles for the students and staff to “perform.” Each of the six weeks of the program also has a special theme to help organize the reading learning skills in a fun way for the children.

“The first week we had a superheroes theme, so naturally we had the police department and the fire department,” Shoesmith said. “The police department came in and then we went to the fire station as a field trip.”

Another week had a “community” theme where Mayor Tate gave the kids a talk about what the local city government does and then gave them a tour of the city council chambers, he said.

“That was a great experience for the kids. It was cool for them to see what they can do in the community. A lot of the goal for them is to see what types of careers they can go into, but also see how important reading is for all these careers,” Shoesmith said. “With all of our guest speakers, we always make sure that they know ahead of time that reading is a core goal of the program and we want them to talk about how reading and writing is important to the job that they do. We try to give them motivation to want to read and write.”

Funding for the P.A. Walsh Summer Achievement Program comes entirely from the Mt. Madonna YMCA through its annual fundraising campaign. None of the families have to pay to put their children through the program. The parents training component is critical to the success of the child. The YMCA requires that the parents go through a two-hour orientation session and sign a commitment form to promise to help their children build their reading interest through the various home activities. These include reading to the child or having the child read to them at least 20 minutes a night through the entire period of the program.

“To me, that’s the most important commitment that they make because it takes three weeks to form a habit — 21 days to solidify a habit,” Shoesmith said. “So if you’re reading for three weeks, seven nights a week, you’re definitely forming a habit. When they leave our program, our hope is that they continue to read every night. If you continue doing that with your kids for two years, it will have a huge long-term impact on their education and their success.”

The YMCA also has a partnership with the nonprofit social assistance group Community Solutions which requires the parents to attend one of the group’s “positive parenting” workshops. In these sessions, parents learn how to help their children with homework and how to be a good role model in learning skills necessary for reading. Shoesmith said he sat in on a workshop and, even though he was trained for five years in child development, he learned things he didn’t know about working with children.

In the two years he has worked on the program, he has seen that the Summer Achievement Program really does help students learn to build their reading skills and enjoy reading, hopefully for a lifetime.

“I got involved a long time ago when I first started working for the YMCA,” he said. “It was a summer job, it wasn’t a career to me, and I was working at the Y to help pay for college. The first summer, I was a summer camp leader. They were trying to start up a summer reading program — not the exact model that we have here but something similar, their own sort of attempt at it. It wasn’t terribly successfully.”

After graduating from college, Shoesmith had a career choice of going into international business where he could make a lot of money or going into child development working at the YMCA.

“It was a tough choice, but ultimately I went into the YMCA because that was what made me happy,” he said. “I love working with kids, and more than that I like making a difference. My other career path, I would have just made the rich richer, which is not what I believe in. I was happy to be involved in helping those in need through this amazing program.”