As part of a larger effort to lift lagging literacy rates, the Tennessee Department of Education has named the first recipients of a $1 million, three-year philanthropic grant to provide summer reading programs across the state.

Chosen from among more than 200 proposals for 2016, a dozen recipients will share the grant provided by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation in conjunction with Tennessee’s Read to be Ready campaign. The state campaign, which kicked off earlier this year, focuses on reading development in early elementary grades and aims to get 75 percent of the state’s third-graders proficient by 2025.

“With less than half of the state’s third-graders currently reading on grade level, we must approach reading in new and innovative ways,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in the announcement last week. “Read to be Ready summer grants will support individual communities as they tailor their approach to reading to meet the needs of the families they serve.”

While all students can fall behind academically during the summer break from school, students from low-income families are affected disproportionately. In a phenomenon known as summer slide, they lose two to three months in reading achievement over the summer, while their more affluent peers tend to make slight gains.

Dollar General's Denine Torr (left) presents a gift for the state's literacy work to first lady Chrissy Haslam, Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.
PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Dollar General’s Denine Torr (left) presents a gift for the state’s summer literacy work to first lady Chrissy Haslam, Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

This summer’s literacy-based camps will seek to address that widening gap in reading achievement.

Lipscomb University education professor Jeanne Fain is among the first grant recipients and will use the $30,000 award to provide a summer camp for 40 low-income children in Nashville. The four-week camp will serve struggling readers at J.E. Moss Elementary, a school where nearly 80 percent of students failed the state’s reading test last year. Many are part of Tennessee’s growing English language learner population.

When it comes to children who are learning English while they also learn to read, Fain considers the double challenge an asset, not a detriment, to building literacy skills.

“I don’t like the term language barrier. They know another language!” said Fain, who heads Lipscomb’s education program for teaching English language learners. “I want to value what kids know and they know so much. They just need to build on what they know.”

In addition to Fain, the winners are:

  • Northwest Region, Humboldt City Schools, Kristin Hardin
  • Southwest Region, Lauderdale County, Jennifer Jordan
  • Southwest Region, Jackson-Madison School System, Kristen Peachey
  • Mid Cumberland Region, Robertson County, Jennifer Cox
  • South Central Region, Giles County, Tina Smith
  • Upper Cumberland Region, Cannon County, MaryBeth Young & Melisha Simmons
  • Southeast Region, Polk County, Amy McAbee
  • Southeast Region, McMinn County, Penny Davis
  • East Region, Lenoir City Schools, Wendy Jones
  • East Region, Oak Ridge City Schools, Amelia Bell & Gwen Harrel
  • First Tennessee Region, Hawkins County, Carrie Smith & Jennifer Cassell