Heading back to school conjures images of sharpened pencils and new backpacks, with fresh clothes as we prepare for the onset of fall.

For United Way and our funded partners, helping students get ready for the school year began back at the onset of summer, by helping children avoid the “summer slide” and keeping them on track for success.

According to the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University, two-thirds of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities.

Low-income students lose about two months in reading achievement over the summer – aka, “brain drain” – while their middle-class peers make slight gains. When this pattern continues across the elementary school years, lower income youth fall more than 2.5 years behind their more affluent peers by the end of 5th grade.

As a result, students are much more likely to drop out of high school, which in turn renders them unqualified for 90% of jobs available in the Charlotte region today.

Boosting summer learning –­ by working with schools, summer programs, employers and other nonprofits – is part of United Way’s strategy to help kids succeed in school, work and life.

For example, YWCA’s youth programs provide year-round academic support for 345 elementary school students living in 10 economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Mecklenburg and Union counties – including the nine weeks of summer.

“Even in the summer, when the longer days allow time for more fun activities, literacy and reading comprehension are at the core of everything that we do,” said Ally Korony, philanthropy manager at YWCA Central Carolinas. “If students are participating in a cooking activity, for example, the ingredients and words listed in the recipes will become that week’s vocabulary words.”

In addition to YWCA’s daily use of guided reading programs, such as Accelerated Reader, community partners like the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, the Hornets Book Bus and Promising Pages’ Magic Book Parties join in with the YWCA’s activities to make reading fun and exciting.

The short-term results are impressive. In July alone, YWCA’s Mecklenburg County students collectively read 2,037 books and passed 1,779 (87%) comprehension quizzes on the books read, per Accelerated Reader data.

Another United Way partner, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, engaged 752 students across three school districts (Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Mooresville Graded, Lincoln County) in Y Readers, a nationally recognized literacy program that serves students in grades K-3 who are reading below grade level. YReaders includes as a six-week summer camp specifically geared toward not only halting summer learning loss, but reversing it, helping at-risk students get ahead.

New this summer, Read Charlotte worked with the Y to integrate literacy into traditional summer camp experiences beyond the YReaders program itself, reaching a wider group of students. This new model was piloted at three locations including the McCrorey and Stratford Richardson YMCAs.

These Literacy-Infused Summer Camps integrated one hour of literacy into their existing programming that includes read-aloud time using Active Reading strategies, independent reading and word games. The goal of the infusion is to prevent summer slide. Staff administer a one-minute assessment at the beginning and end of camp to track the results of this pilot program.

United Way’s corporate partners have also played a part in helping to prevent summer learning loss and preparing local schools for a great school year. Volunteer groups from partners such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Duke Energy, among others, have worked with Hands On Charlotte to create summer literacy kits for local schools and nonprofits.

“Having engaged partners and enthusiastic volunteers made a huge impact all summer long,” said Leslie Rink, director of United Way’s Hands On Charlotte volunteer arm. “We’re grateful for their support, and we plan to help continue this positive momentum when we launch new programs with Read Charlotte later this year.”

If you’d like to learn more about our work in the community, click here.