Editor's note: Helping Hands is a new Sunday column offering our area nonprofit groups a chance to talk about their work. If your group would like to be considered for participation, email jperry@dlnewspapers.com. This column is by Kathrina O’Connell, sixth-grade teacher at Lake Park Audubon Elementary and a doctoral candidate at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

The Lake Park Audubon School District offered a new summer learning program for its middle school students in grades five through eight this year: a summer Literacy Academy.

I created the Academy to address adolescent reading engagement and motivation. The program is based on research-based best practices in literacy instruction, with emphasis on independent reading with conferencing, vocabulary and word work, writing, small-group shared reading, teacher read-aloud and Readers Theater.

Learning was tailored for all literacy levels, from struggling or nonmotivated readers to gifted readers. The overarching theme of the program, Growing as Readers, was nature-based, so all texts and literacy activities focused on nature, gardening, conservation efforts, and conservationists. Reading enjoyment and motivation to read were top priorities of the instructional day.

Kathrina O’Connell, sixth-grade teacher at Lake Park Audubon Elementary
Kathrina O’Connell, sixth-grade teacher at Lake Park Audubon Elementary

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Participation in the Literacy Academy was voluntary. All students, however, were encouraged to attend in order to prevent summer learning loss -- the phenomenon in which students lose skills learned during the school year in the summer months when they are not in school. The LPA School District supported this new program by providing bus transportation for students living within the district. Together with free breakfast and lunch, the Literacy Academy provided resources such as transportation to educational activities, nutrition and book access that may not otherwise be available to children during the summer months.

Last year 13 students in grades five through eight registered for regular summer school programming at LPA. This year three students registered for summer school and 97 students registered for the summer Literacy Academy. In sixth grade alone, 39 students, or 54% of the grade level, registered for the summer Literacy Academy.

Lake Park Audubon is a small, rural Title I school and providing transportation was a key component of the program. As this was the first year of the Literacy Academy, however, participation was limited to grades five through eight.

In order to increase students’ book access when school was not in session, all participants selected eight books to read (and keep) at the end of the school year in May. They also received an additional two books at the conclusion of the Literacy Academy so that they had books to read until school started again in September. Students had a wide variety of texts to choose from: fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, biographies and more.

In addition to busing, meals, and books, students received food coupons, Raider gear and other prizes for attending. The four-week program concluded with a special celebration field trip to Barnes and Noble in Fargo, where each student selected a $10 book to keep.

Both parents and participants have expressed their gratitude for both the program and all of the resources provided to participants. From email letters of thanks to student-written letters of gratitude, the overall response to the new literacy program has been extremely positive.