By Art Garcia
The task seems simple enough: Create a summer literacy program for elementary students in East Fort Worth.
The reality was much more daunting.
Dr. Elsa Anderson and Dr. Lisa Dryden, two distinguished members of the Texas Wesleyan University education department, were presented that challenge by Fort Worth SPARC executive director Tobi Jackson. Anderson and Dryden dove right in rolled up their sleeves and developed the ELITE Institute on the Texas Wesleyan campus.
“One of the main objectives was to impact student ‘summer slide,’” Anderson said. “To make sure that the slide that is so characteristic of summer when students are not exposed to literacy and diminish that by providing students the opportunity read and write and engage and learn. And do so in a way that’s pleasant.”
The creation of the ELITE (Excellent Literacy Instruction to Empower) Institute, a landmark partnership between Texas Wesleyan, Fort Worth ISD and Fort Worth SPARC, is changing lives one page at a time.
Fort Worth SPARC (Strengthen after-school Programs through Advocacy, Resources and Collaboration) is a collaboration between the City of Fort Worth, all 14 local independent school districts, after-school providers and community leaders. These groups work with SPARC to advocate for exceptional after-school programs across Greater Fort Worth and to serve as a resource for parents and providers.
Anderson and Dryden created the ELITE Institute curriculum, a research-based model of writing and reading strategies. They trained Fort Worth ISD teachers and other teaching volunteers in delivering the ELITE curriculum to a culturally and linguistically diverse student population.
The ELITE Institute featured two summer sessions in June and July, which were attended by about 85 K-5 students and 50 teachers. Each session covered three weeks with two-hour days. All the children taught lived within a three-mile radius of Texas Wesleyan.
“This is the most socio-economically depressed zip code in Tarrant County and we have a really challenging time engaging parents,” said Jackson, also president of the FWISD Board of Trustees. “Not because they don’t want to be engaged, but because they may not be academically inclined. To get them on campus this early and not feel threatened, that’s a huge win for us and parent engagement.”
The enthusiasm of the students and teachers was clear to see in each classroom within Dan Waggoner Hall. Each day brought a new book and a new activity based on that book. On one particular July morning, a group of students had read Book! Book! Book!, noteworthy for its surprise ending. The students were then encouraged to rewrite Book! Book! Book! with their own ending.
Khaiden Willis, 6, enjoyed reading Little Red Hen the most.
“I learned that if you don’t help make the pie, you can’t eat with them,” he said. “It’s fun that I get to learn. They taught me a lot of things like learning to read, math and science.”
Engaging and motivating students during the summer can prove difficult. Anderson recounted the story of one student that they couldn’t get to at first.
“We finally discovered what makes him tick,” she said. “He loves flowers and he loves turtles, so we found him books about turtles and flowers, and we were able to engage him.”
Added Dryden: “It was amazing. He just lit up.”
One of the byproducts of the program running for two hours per day was the buy-in from parents. A concern when developing the program was whether to charge a registration fee, similar to other summer-reading programs on college campuses. The thought being that a financial investment would be a greater motivator for child attendance than it being free of charge.
What SPARC found is that parents did feel they had “skins in the game,” as Jackson put it, because of their commitment to drop off and pick up their kids in a relatively short window. The July session, for example, started each weekday morning at 9 a.m. and was done by 11 a.m.
“It’s a hard commitment in the summer to get parents to drop their kids for two hours,” Jackson said. “They want a full-day commitment usually, but this been so good that some students even asked to do this twice even though it was the same material.”
The costs for the student attendance were completely covered by SPARC, in addition to local sponsorship support from Waldorf Publishing, which donated books to every child, and Pepperidge Farm, which donated snacks every day. The teachers and other personnel involved all donated their time.
The ELITE Institute is equally beneficial for teachers, with the goal of improving their reading and writing processes, learning and applying new strategies for teaching reading and writing, and becoming immersed in exciting children’s literature and mentor texts for writing.
Still, at the end of the day, the smile on the child’s face goes beyond any program goals committed to paper.
“One of the kids at 11 o’clock last week said, ‘This is the best day ever,’” Dryden beamed. “That’s why we’re here. That’s pretty cool.”
About the ELITE Institute
The ELITE (Excellent Literacy Instruction to Empower) Institute is a summer program designed for K-5 teachers and students in Fort Worth ISD. The institute will enrich teachers’ current knowledge of best practice of reading and writing in a vibrant learning environment. Teachers will thrive through hands-on application, collaboration with each other, and self-reflection regarding their philosophy of teaching and learning. Students will work with individual teachers and engage in the literacy strategies learned through ELITE and decrease students’ literacy summer slide.