Column: Systems of support help local students make gains

Though the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students is not yet fully known, what we do know – and what the early data confirms – is that learning has suffered, equity gaps have widened and the time to come together to create systems that work for all students is now.

While school districts across the state work to define the extent of COVID learning loss and how to fix it, the traditional summer slide threatens to complicate year-long hurdles. But this summer, existing enrichment programs across Essex County will continue to stem educational and social losses for students, many of whom come from low-income families and are at greater risk of falling behind.

In Beverly, it’s about a six-minute walk through the woods from Hannah Elementary School to the Greater Beverly YMCA on Essex Street. But for the seventh summer in a row, the trail will mark more than a physical connection between the two places. Since 2015, the Beverly Schools, the Greater Beverly YMCA and the City of Beverly have collaborated on a five-week, full-day summer literacy program that bridges academics and fun. It includes three hours of literacy work at Hannah Elementary in the morning and three hours of activities like swimming and crafts at camp in the afternoon.

The Beverly Summer Literacy program, which costs about $200,000 to operate each summer and is run through nonprofit Building a Better Beverly, is fully funded by grants and private donations.

“The grants and donations we receive are critical to offering the literacy program at no cost,” said Catherine Barrett, director of grants for the city of Beverly. “Without them, there would be a huge cost barrier to many of these families.”

Barrett said 60% of participants in the summer program receive free or reduced lunch during the school year.

Students are identified and referred to the program by Beverly elementary school principals, teachers, counselors and reading specialists, who work closely with staff from the YMCA on programming, which for hundreds of struggling first, second and third graders, has strengthened their academic foundations while offering opportunities to explore new interests and socialize with friends.

“Teachers and families really want to be able to continue to give our youngest learners a solid foundation and we are able to do that while still maintaining the ‘fun’ that comes along with summer at the YMCA,” said Summer Literacy Program Academic Director Heather Dempsey, a Beverly schoolteacher.

The Beverly Summer Literacy Program feels especially vital after a year in which students struggled with remote learning and isolation from their peers. This year, it will serve more than 120 of the City’s students, a return to more traditional participation rates after last summer’s COVID restrictions slashed capacity by more than half.

Similar literacy programs are happening at YMCAs all across Essex County this summer. The summer literacy program at the Cape Ann YMCA continues to expand. And in Ipswich, Executive Director Chris Bevilacqua said they have added a math component to respond to COVID learning loss, along with many other program expansions.

In Haverhill, where a citywide reading initiative was launched in 2018, the participation rate in the YMCA’s Summer Literacy Academy has doubled for this year. While Haverhill YMCA Regional Executive Director Tracy Fuller attributes some of that increase to the needs exacerbated by COVID, she also credits the strong partnerships within the city – including those with the Haverhill Public Schools, various city officials and private funders – with the rise in participation rates.

“It’s been great to see the more we work in concert with each other, the more those numbers increase,” said Fuller, who added that she hopes philanthropy can play a bigger role in the long-term sustainability of the program. This year, it has been largely funded by a state grant.

These summer programs, along with so many others that are organized through collaborative efforts, are – and will continue to be – more vital to Essex County’s students than ever before.

“Each year, the children make real gains in reading thanks to this amazing program,” said Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill.

In Beverly last year, nearly 100% of participants maintained or improved their foundational literacy skills; nearly 100% of students maintained oral reading skills with no summer regressions; and a majority of students advanced their reading level. In Haverhill, Fuller said they typically see reading gains of 3-6 months.

Success like this doesn’t happen by chance. We believe that these programs can serve as models for how partnerships and collaboration can lay the groundwork for long-term systems that effectively support all students. They also serve as opportunities for philanthropy to play a more significant role in this system of support.

“Our teachers, camp counselors, lead partners at the Greater Beverly YMCA and Beverly Public Schools, as well as our generous donors, make all the difference for these children and their families,” said Cahill.

At ECCF, we have always believed that we can do so much more when we act together. The silver lining to the challenges dropped on our doorstep by COVID-19 is that this notion has been re-affirmed.

“It’s led to a much stronger relationship among all the partners,” said Lorigan Sudak, senior director of school age education at the Greater Beverly YMCA. “These are the kids of Beverly and we’re all working together for them.”

Stratton Lloyd is executive vice president and COO at Essex County Community Foundation. Michelle Xiarhos Curran is the foundation’s communications writer.

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