Greater Worcester Community Foundation announced the kickoff of a citywide initiative to curb the early childhood education achievement gap. With the receipt of the multi-year evaluation report from the partners --United Way of Central Mass., the City of Worcester and Worcester Public Schools, the Worcester Education Collaborative, and Family Services of Central Mass. -- the project is helping some of the city's most vulnerable families.

There are many pathways to a successful life, but almost all of them include graduation from high school and obtaining some post-secondary education. A key predictor for these achievements is how well a child can read in elementary school. For example, a 10-year-old who can't read at grade level is 55% more likely to drop out of school. That describes 62% of third graders in the Worcester Public Schools. What holds them back? Poverty, for one, as over half of Worcester Public School children come from low-income families and their access to literacy-rich summertime opportunities can be limited.

A key factor is the phenomenon known as Summer Learning Loss, or the “Summer Slide.” Despite the gains made during the school year, low-income children may lose two to three months of progress over the summer. The effects are cumulative, causing these kids to fall behind by as many as three years by 5th grade and contributing to serious problems by the time a student enters high school.

Key Worcester organizations are doing something about it. GWCF, UWCM, WEC, WPS, FSCM and the City of Worcester have formed the Summer Literacy Initiative, a united front in the fight against summer learning loss. The program introduces high quality, fun literacy-rich activities to the summer experiences for the kids most at risk and it is being done on a large scale.

The Worcester program was launched in 2010, when a consortium of Massachusetts United Ways developed the model to train and deploy professional educators as “literacy coaches” embedded within into the summer day programs where low-income children are spending their time. The results are impressive: 75% of the kids who participate maintain their skills; over half actually show gains; and 19 out of 20 avoid the loss that low-income kids typically experience.

“We are thrilled to have created—and continued to fund—the Summer Literacy Initiative for these past seven years,” commented United Way of Central Massachusetts CEO, Timothy Garvin. “Nearly $300,000 has been invested by us in this work. Having Greater Worcester Community Foundation and the other partners work together to expand these opportunities for more children is a true collaboration. We are excited to see the progress that even more of our students will make, ensuring they stay on track to graduate.”

In 2014, the Summer Literacy Initiative served 335 children at seven sites. In 2015, a $44,000 grant from Greater Worcester Community Foundation enabled an expansion to almost double the reach while maintaining achievement levels, and the grant was renewed for 2016 allowing continued further expansion. “GWCF is committed to bringing our full resources to bear on improving the odds for young children. Moving boldly in partnership with other community leaders against Summer Learning Loss is a key strategy for us,” said Ann Lisi, Foundation President & CEO.

After a very successful 2015 summer learning season, GWCF and WEC co-sponsored a learning summit which brought together over 40 practitioners from 24 organizations to listen to national speakers, learn from each other, and begin to form a community-wide agenda.

As part of this process, the WPS and the City's Recreation Worcester program adopted the Summer Literacy Initiative practices along with a curriculum designed by WEC, bringing literacy activities to all 1400 children who participate in Rec Worcester this summer, with an intensive pilot focused on 200 children in three sites. WPS has made a major contribution, providing literacy coaches and managing the outcome data, an essential element for success.

“Summertime doesn't have to be a break from learning. Recreation Worcester seeks to give our kids a positive, enriching summer that can actually further the gains they've made in school over the year,” said City Manager Edward M. Augustus, Jr. “With help from all our partners, we're making sure our kids have every chance to succeed inside the classroom and out.”

“So many of the issues we deal with in our community are maddeningly complex,” says Chris O'Keeffe, Vice President for Program at GWCF. “This one is pretty simple: We know what works. We just have to organize ourselves to do it and find the necessary resources. The execution is challenging, but together we can make this happen.”

Together GWCF and UWCM have committed $136,000 to summer learning in 2016 and both organizations are committed for the long term.