It’s the kind of crisis that puts the future of our community at risk. Almost one in four Iowa third graders failed new reading tests this past spring. This is deeply troubling because by third grade, curriculums change and instead of learning to read, students are required to read to learn. The inability to read at grade level can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to succeed academically and obtain steady employment in the future. This problem is compounded by the fact that, under our current system, students have three months out of the year where they are not required to practice their academic skills.
The “summer slide” that occurs when children do not continue to practice reading, writing and arithmetic in the summer months can make these discrepancies in academic achievement even more problematic.
This is profound, because the state recently announced that students who are not able to read at grade level by third grade will be required to either repeat the year, or participate in a state-approved summer program. School districts and organizations across Iowa have been concerned about what these summer programs will look like – there’s no guarantee they’ll be effective or affordable.
The real problem, of course, is that the children who are most likely to be behind in reading comprehension are disproportionately likely to come from low-income families. This lack of resources means that the summer enrichment activities that combat summer slide are generally unavailable to these same children. And, as the problem compounds, poor academic achievement will limit employment opportunities in the future.
Enter Brent and Dawn Cobb. The two philanthropists have always had an interest in children and their well-being. The couple had heard about a program called Kids on Course from Brent’s father Pat, the chairman of the Zach Johnson Foundation, which funds the Kids on Course program in Cedar Rapids. Pat Cobb talked often of the success that Kids on Course was seeing – especially with their Summer University. The Summer University worked much like a summer school, except that it disguised academics as fun and games. The results they were seeing indicated that they could avoid summer slide, and even help kids reach grade level reading proficiency, during the summer months.
It was over Christmas dinner last year that Brent finally took his father’s bait. “I had heard the story of the gains over and over again, and I finally said, what are the dollars and cents to expand it to other schools?” After running the numbers, they realized that duplicating the summer program was actually doable. Initially, the Cobbs had intended to fund a summer program at Hiawatha Elementary School; a school located near the family business and one with a high level of need. However, they quickly discovered that summer construction plans would keep them from using the school as a site for the program.
They did, however, have the opportunity to expand the pilot even further by combining with Nixon Elementary School, and using their site as the program’s location. Of course, this increased the number of students that would be participating, and more support would be needed to fund the program.
Working with the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, another couple was identified with similar philanthropic interests, Loren and Patti Coppock. The Coppocks loved the idea, and so, the Kids on Course Summer University Pilot Program at Nixon was established. With the financial support to do the work, the local Kids on Course staff began assembling their team and the faculty at Nixon and Hiawatha began recruiting their most at-risk students.
Thanks to committed Kids on Course staff and volunteers, the Summer University Pilot Program took place as intended. Students spent the past summer engaging in hands-on learning and in diverse enrichment activities, both on and off site. They also participated in skills testing. Lead teacher Casey Woods immediately noticed the impact the program had on her students. Assessment testing at the beginning of this school year confirmed that the Cobb’s hope had been correct – students who had participated in the stand-alone pilot program made significant gains in reading and writing.
While the Cobbs’ primary goal was to help children by supporting education, they also succeeded in proving that the Kids on Course Summer University could work as a stand-alone pilot program. Their private philanthropy was able to spark innovation, and test a model for tackling reading comprehension and summer slide with a summer program. It remains to be seen what the long-term impact of the Cobb’s philanthropy will be, but for this school year, it meant that 52 Nixon and Hiawatha Elementary students will have a better chance of keeping step with their peers in the coming years.