Five-year-old Nykari McNeal has a new favorite word — “towers” — after seeing a drawing of the Eiffel Tower inside of a book during a summer reading camp in Memphis.

“Towers start with T!” says Nykari, who has taken to drawing pictures of towers because he likes the idea of being able to see over a big city. 

Paris, France, is half a world away from Nykari’s neighborhood in the Frayser community of Memphis where most families live below the poverty line and many schools are ranked among the state’s lowest-performing. The closest thing to the Eiffel Tower are telephone poles lining the five-lane road in front of Cornerstone Prep, the charter school where Nykari will begin first grade in August. It’s also where he attended reading camp last month at one of hundreds of such programs launched as part of former Gov. Bill Haslam’s Read to be Ready initiative.

The camps seek to motivate young readers and help them to avoid “summer slide,” a phenomenon that especially affects students from low-income families who slide backwards in learning during their months off from school.

Nykari’s teachers say the daily, focused reading and writing instruction that he received at the government-funded camp is making a world of difference for him and 47 other youngsters who participated. Although funding is in jeopardy for continuing the camps next summer, they can’t believe that Tennessee would pull the plug on a program that invests in students like Nykari, just as it’s seeking to get 75% of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025 — a big lift from the 37% currently at that threshold.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth with our kids this year,” said Marie Cushing, a second-grade teacher who also taught at the school’s summer camp in its second year. “It would be really harmful to not have that culture of reading to continue when they’re not in school.” 

Read to be Ready camps first opened in 2016, and Tennessee has expanded the program annually with funding from the U.S. Department of Human Services. But state officials learned in January that the federal grant now has to be used for child care programs, not educational camps. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration then reached into discretionary funds to keep the camps afloat this summer, since Tennessee already had announced $8.9 million worth of grants would be awarded to 218 schools hosting them for about 9,000 students in 2019.

Now the question is whether Read to be Ready summer camps will be funded in 2020 and beyond, especially following the demise last month of the initiative’s 3-year-old network of literacy coaches working with local educators to beef up reading instruction statewide.  

State legislators already have begun to get an earful from their constituents.

“If we’re abandoning this, what’s the plan?” asked Joey Hassell, a West Tennessee school superintendent and an outspoken advocate of Read to be Ready. “Our summer camp in Haywood County Schools means a lot to us. We’ve got 90 kids in it for a month this summer to help them read better, and the legislature didn’t even talk about these funding problems this year.”

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White said Read to be Ready is viewed as an effective investment and expressed surprise when he learned that funding was drying up.

“If you’ve got a program out there that’s working, I think you can expect a conversation will center around that in next year’s legislature,” said White, a Memphis Republican.

Educators involved with Read to be Ready say they will travel to the state Capitol to testify, if necessary.

“Every single student who attended our camp last summer had good grades the following school year, and their teachers told me that being in the camp seemed to make the students more excited about reading,” said Karen Sadikoff, an instructional coach for Sweetwater City Schools, east of Knoxville.

In addition to reading lots of books, the campers welcome special guests to read and talk with them. They go on field trips and then write about what they saw in their personal journals. They also explore summer-friendly themes like vegetables, plants, oceans, animals, and baseball. All the while, they are discussing what the words mean, learning about different kinds of words, and building their vocabulary.

Ari Bouie, 6, shows off the art project she made after reading different fables during the monthlong Read to be Ready literacy camp held at Cornerstone Prep in Memphis' Frayser neighborhood.
PHOTO: Kathryn Palmer/Chalkbeat
Ari Bouie, 6, studies the art project she made after reading different fables during a monthlong Read to be Ready literacy camp at Cornerstone Prep.

“A lot of kids are spending the summer watching cartoons at home,” said Dorian Lloyd, a kindergarten teacher at Cornerstone Prep. “When they’re here with us, they can get excited about learning.”

At Rozelle Creative and Performing Arts Elementary, also in Memphis, principal Kimberly Shaw says the extra summertime reading makes her students less intimidated by the complex texts they’re introduced to when school starts.

“We need every reading program that’s available,” said Shaw about Rozelle, where only 30 percent of students can read on or above grade level.

Before stepping down in December, state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the camps had played a “crucial role” in raising the reading skills and motivation of participants, who have showed gains in reading comprehension and accuracy skills for three straight years.

Penny Schwinn, who succeeded her in February, said McQueen made “her job easier by prioritizing investments in early literacy” and added that Lee’s administration remains committed to the state’s lofty reading goals and literacy work. However, what that will look like remains to be seen, she said.

“We are going to have to use those funds in a way that’s aligned with strategic planning and instructional materials,” Schwinn told Chalkbeat, citing a need to widen access to high-quality texts.

Exposing students to such texts is a major part of the summer camps, which sent more than 193,000 books home with participants to keep during its first three summers. That means each camper, on average, received 25 new books for his or her home library — often the first ones they’ve owned.

“This program puts books into our kids’ hands that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” said Aszure Brown, a fourth-grade teacher who directs the camp at Cornerstone Prep. “Many of our parents, they can’t just go to a Barnes and Noble. It’s expensive and they just don’t have that access.”

Third-grader Kenyari Harmon, 8, writes a story about her favorite athlete during the Read to be Ready literacy camp held at Cornerstone Prep in Memphis' Frayser neighborhood. June 27, 2019.
PHOTO: Kathryn Palmer/Chalkbeat
Kenyari Harmon, 8, writes a story about tennis star Serena Williams.

Kenyari Harmon jumped up and down excitedly upon learning that she would get to take home a “bag of books” at the close of camp at Cornerstone Prep— books that the 8-year-old later was allowed to pick out herself based on her own interests. Her favorites? Stories that are “scary, silly and funny.”

But she predicted that her new library also might include “Game Changers,” a biography that she had just read about tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams.

“I like her because she never gives up,” says Kenyari of Serena.