Empower Families, Boost Reading Scores:
Start a Reading Camp in Just 6 Steps

Contributed by Dr. Timothy R. Blair, Professor of Reading and Literacy Education, the University of Central Florida, Orlando

In the 12 years that I have developed and led free reading camps in one of the most socially and economically challenged neighborhoods of Orlando, I have learned an important lesson: Our model can – and should – be duplicated throughout our country. And the beauty of it all is, it’s easy, affordable, and effective.

Establishing your own reading camp for two hours every Saturday over 10 weeks will allow you to provide an ongoing and valuable community service that will equip children and families in diverse communities with the tools they need for academic and lifelong success.

Here’s how you can get started:

1. Determine how to staff your program. Choose whether to partner with a nearby college or university, or whether to use your own teachers with parent volunteers at your school.

To partner with a local college or university, track down the director of teacher education, and emphasize that you are offering faculty a research, teaching, and community service opportunity. All university faculty must publish, all must provide some community service, and all offer early field experiences. A reading camp – which provides a hands-on teaching experience – is especially attractive for teachers in training and university faculty seeking a meaningful field-based experience.

To draw upon your own resources, determine whether you want to offer the opportunity to your faculty – young teachers or reading coaches, for instance. With four to six teachers, you can reach 20 to 30 students using small-group instruction. Title 1 family-engagement funds can often be used to compensate your staff. Use existing grade-level literacy curricula that can be taught in the 10-week session.

2. Pick a place. Find a central, cost-effective location – one that is accessible by public transportation, foot, or bike.

Consider a community center. We worked with the City of Orlando Families, Parks and Recreation Division to locate two community centers that were already open on Saturday mornings, thus eliminating facilities costs. Such centers are often places where community members feel comfortable and will want to go for your program. Finding the community centers was a win for us as well as for the city, which placed our camps under an existing initiative known as Parramore Kidz Zone that was designed to prevent juvenile crime and teen pregnancy, as well as reduce high school dropout rates. Community centers in your target areas may offer similar initiatives.

Make your school the reading camp site. Hosting a reading camp at your school promotes community relations, which can result in greater family engagement and increased student achievement and confidence.

3. Promote it to families. Drum up the program among your own parents by sending students home with applications. But don’t stop there. Consider making the program available to students at neighboring schools as a joint venture. (I typically deliver applications to 12 elementary schools each season.) A week before the camp, be sure to follow up with phone calls to parents as a reminder of the launch date and other critical information.

4. Find funding sources. The cost of a 10-week camp – which includes a weekly stipend for teachers, food for teachers and families, teaching supplies, prizes for children, and book-filled backpacks at the end of the semester – typically runs about $3,000. This program and approach aligns with federal and state family-engagement initiatives.

Use Title 1 funds. Many schools in diverse communities can tap into Title 1 family-engagement funds to set up a Saturday reading camp, allowing you to pay teachers or reading coaches $100 to $150 per week for the two-hour camp, plus preparation time, setup, and cleanup.

Obtain grants from cities. Contact your local government to find out if funding is available for city literacy initiatives.

Look for corporate grants. Large companies such as City National Bank, Walmart, Starbucks, Kohl’s, and Target often offer community grants, sometimes specifically for promoting literacy. Your local supermarkets and businesses may also be willing to provide funding and/or refreshments.

5. Ensure a personal welcome. As parents and children arrive each week at camp, greet every attendee at the door. Make each attendee feel special.

Get to know every name. It’s an important way to connect with parents and children. I have done this 2,000 times over with the children alone in the 12 years of our program.

Provide refreshments. Whether home-baked or store-bought, snacks and drinks go far toward getting children’s and parents’ attention and appreciation, especially in areas where families must rely upon free and reduced lunches to sustain their children. Consider ending your 10-week session with a celebration pizza party.

Give everyone something to take home. At the end of each 10-week session, I send each student home with a backpack filled with books. In between I’ll hand out other take-homes, such as school supplies with healthy snacks as students leave to go home each week.

6. Compare performance. As students enter and graduate from your program, measure their reading level using an Informal Reading Inventory assessment. Students who attend our camps all raised their vocabulary and comprehension scores, and more than 33 percent of the students raised their reading level by at least one grade level during just one 10-week reading camp.

Reading camps empower families, promote student achievement, are easy to establish and maintain, and are affordable. It’s a win-win for all involved. The investment in students will be immeasurable, the investment in families invaluable, and the investment in our communities worthwhile and deeply rewarding.

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