By Melanie Garrett

Students at Huntsville Elementary School’s summer reading camp recently visited the Scott Municipal Airport in Oneida to learn about airplanes and aviation.

Summer learning loss is a very real issue that students and teachers across the country have to tackle when school resumes each year. Summer is typically known as “time off”, and children are great at taking advantage of that. Four years ago, under then-governor Bill Haslam, the state of Tennessee developed a program that provided a fun, but educational, opportunity to motivate students to continue learning through the summer months.

The Read to be Ready (RTBR) summer reading camp program is an educational initiative that is aimed at incoming first through third graders. Four county schools- Fairview Elementary, Huntsville Elementary, Robbins Elementary, and Winfield Elementary- along with Oneida Elementary have received grants to host the summer camps locally. The camps are held for four weeks during the summer, and students are chosen based on criteria set forth by the state and the host school

Why RTBR?

The state of Tennessee has long been at the bottom nationwide when it comes to standardized test scores. RTBR is a program that was created to help address the issue that only a third of fourth graders statewide were considered to be proficient readers. The idea was to focus on developing stronger readers in early elementary grades, and there is a new goal to have 75 percent of the state’s third graders to be reading on grade level by 2025.

This goal is a high expectation for all students across the state, but students in rural areas like Scott County are often seen as having a disadvantage compared to students in more affluent areas such as Oak Ridge or the suburbs of Nashville. RTBR appears to be working, though. Last year there was a one-year growth of 2.3 percent among third graders across the state, and now 37 percent of third graders are reading at or above grade level.

Local RTBR Camps

The design of RTBR camps in Scott County follow the format set forth by the state. Students spend roughly ten months a year in a typical school setting, so these camps are planned in a way to keep students highly engaged and motivated. The children are exposed to a variety of books, but the teachers that lead the camps are responsible for creating activities to encourage the students to come back each day. The students read, discuss, and write multiple times throughout the week.

Teresa Boshears, a classroom and RTBR teacher at Fairview, shared a unit that the students enjoyed during the camp. Each day, the focus was on a different book that had the word “three” in the title. Students read stories such as  “Three Little Pigs”, “The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf”, and “The Three Little Aliens and the Big Bad Robot”. Students connected writing with each of the books and were able to create their own robot to take home.

Just down the road at Huntsville Elementary, teacher Stacie Trammell shared several of the units their students have taken part in this summer. They’ve learned about transportation, animal habitats, and climates. To provide for deeper learning and authentic experiences, the campers have been on several grant-funded field trips that relate to their units of study. They went on a train ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, toured the Helenwood Airport, visited the Children’s Museum at Oak Ridge, and took an enchanting trip to Rainforest Adventures. Perhaps one of the most exciting trips the students took was to Books-A-Million where they were each given $36 to purchase books of their choice to take home with them. Trammell said, “Check out was a nightmare, but we had some happy kiddos!”

Students at Oneida Elementary have also been in full swing over the past few weeks at their RTBR summer camp. They are having similar hands-on experiences with different types of text. “Students are more eager and confident to read texts that are not only familiar but complex,” says teacher Caitlyn West. “RTBR is a wonderful, fun extension to a student’s reading growth.”

More than Just Another Program

The excitement behind the RTBR summer reading camps is contagious. Boshears mentions that the students have really improved on their reading and writing skills, but shows concern when the talk of the program losing funding comes up. “I hate that we won’t have the grant anymore. The kids love it and it is a good summer program.”

Trammell agrees. “RTBR was funded for four years and this is the last year. We have been hoping and asking if perhaps it will be refunded. There is no indication at this time if that will or will not happen. If it is not refunded, we feel students will lose a valuable opportunity to continue reading and writing in the summer in a fun and hands-on way.”

The program itself has provided countless opportunities for community involvement during a time when the school doors are often closed to students. Local establishments like McDonald’s and Sonic have provided attendance incentives at some of the schools. Area musicians, school principals, and community workers have visited the different camps and read books to the students. There have also been several visits by campers to the different libraries throughout the county and to the museum at Scott High School.

Although the future of the RTBR summer programs is in the air for now, there is no doubt to the effects that it has had on students across the state and locally. As Trammell says, “We open their eyes to different varieties (of literature) and open their minds to new worlds that engage their imaginations. Our hope is that students develop a life-long love of reading.”

Melanie Garrett is a second grade teacher at Burchfield Elementary School.

This article is the June 2019 installment of Focus On: Education, presented by S.T.A.N.D. on the third week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Focus On series. A print version of this article can be found on Page A3 of the June 20, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.