For the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD), English language literacy is both an essential and a challenging aspect of students' learning. More than 91 percent of SAUSD's 53,000 students are Hispanic and 60 percent are learning English as a second language. More than 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. It's clear that developing literacy skills is crucial for these students to succeed in school, career and life.
Many students fall behind over the summer, especially in reading. The National Summer Learning Association reports that every summer, low-income youth lose two to three months in reading while their higher-income peers make slight gains... By fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave low-income students 2 1/2 to 3 years behind their peers.
Parents seek to overcome the "summer slide" through summer learning programs. According to our America After 3PM household survey, 62 percent of California parents say they want to enroll their children in a summer learning program, 77 percent agree that summer learning activities help kids maintain academic skills and 90 percent support public funding for these programs.
Teaching literacy through the power of publishing
Leaders at the SAUSD summer learning program, Engage 360°, were looking for a creative way to help students make gains in writing and literacy, so they turned to the WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS program. It helps young people in grades K-12 to become writers, and therefore more comprehensive readers, by allowing them to author and publish original stories inspired by artwork on pre-illustrated (yet wordless) children's books. Engage 360° operates at SAUSD's elementary school locations, serving approximately 4,000 students over the summer.
"We wanted to counteract learning loss over the summer and make it fun for kids to work on their literacy skills and English language proficiency," said Michael Baker, SAUSD's District Coordinator of Extended Learning Programs.
Through collaborative and independent processes, kids in the WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS craft original stories--including characters, plotlines and setting descriptions. Their stories are saved online for students and educators to access and then printed professionally.
"WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS disguises literacy education as fun," said Meredith Scott Lynn, WRiTE BRAiN's Founder & CEO. "It's a project-based approach to literacy. Kids in the program have to invent real worlds for the imaginary characters in the books. They have to solve the real world problems posed by working in a group comprised of individuals with differing opinions and perspectives, and then create the processes by which the imaginary characters in their books solve their own problems."
Baker praised the program's structured approach to promoting creativity. "One of the major hurdles kids face when writing is the question of 'what do I write about?' WRiTE BRAiN addresses this question in a systematic way, guiding students step-by-step as they work together and independently to build valuable 21st century skills."
"When kids go home, they all want to talk about their books with their parents," Baker added. "They take ownership of their work and are proud of it."
Addressing modern challenges
"In a time when any question can be answered in a second, this program helps kids slow down their processing and develop critical thinking skills," Lynn said.
The program is also designed to help close the achievement gap between poorer, minority students and students from wealthy families. "The WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS program is a beautiful equalizer," said Lynn. "I can show you a children's book written by a young person in the poorest community, and one written by a kid in the wealthiest community, and you wouldn't know the difference."
Thanks to Engage 360° and WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS, Santa Ana students from all walks of life will feel more confident speaking, reading and writing this school year.
Summer programs as a flexible community tool
Programs like Engage 360° offer participants much more than the opportunity to become published authors. It provides opportunities to explore science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and a healthy snack every day.
Last year, at a panel discussion at The National Afterschool Summit, hosted by the University of Southern California's Schwarzenegger Institute, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido praised afterschool programs for giving disadvantaged youth a much-needed boost. "Not only do [youth] graduate from high school, they go to college," he said. "These are inner city kids who are at risk - who, if you compare them with their peers, you'd think there was no way we could achieve those numbers. But when we work together, we can."
Mayor Pulido credited afterschool programs for the city's turnaround. Santa Ana used to have one of the highest crime rates among cities with populations between 250,000 and 500,000. "We are now number one in that same category," he said, "and I believe that would not be possible without investing in youth."
The city of Santa Ana has successfully used afterschool and summer learning programs to address some of its most pressing problems--from crime to literacy education. Imagine the possibilities if every city in America went to equal lengths to ensure youth are safe, supported and learning when school is out!