Written and photographed by Catherine Pittman Smith
When the heart leads, the mind follows. Passion ignites. Phone calls are made; sponsors, volunteers, and facilities are secured; ideas become lesson plans; meals are planned; dates are set; transportation is provided…and the wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round. Literally. Such is the story of the Yellowhammer Learning Program (YLP), a multi-week summer learning program that was born out of Sawyerville Day Camp (SDC) located in Greensboro, Alabama, in the Black Belt.
For more than 20 years, SDC has been a major heartbeat in the Greensboro community. Dating back to the 1980s, Episcopal priests and lay people from area churches worked together to offer a day camp for the local children, but it wasn’t until 1993 that SDC held its first session. Since then, volunteers have been able to share the love of Christ through Christian community, as well as improve race relations in an impoverished area that is notorious for racial tension and low literacy and graduation rates.
In the summer of 2013, Andrew Cotten, a long-time volunteer, and Leslie Manning, the executive director of SDC, both came to realize that far too many of the children were struggling with “reading simple sentences aloud, enunciating multi-syllable words, and writing basic sentences,” says Cotten, a Mountain Brook Junior High English teacher. “I was shocked, [but] more importantly, I was heartbroken.” The campers that they worked with over the years had become more than “just random kids at a distant summer camp,” says Cotten. “Once this need for an academic component was identified, it could not be ignored.”
At the close of the 2013 summer camp session, Manning and Cotten “hatched the idea of having a literacy program in conjunction with the already successful Sawyerville Day Camp,” according to Beth Wilder, president of the Literacy Council of Central Alabama. “Leslie reached out to a few other nonprofits to help, and that first year, the Literacy Council of Central Alabama and Project Horseshoe Farm joined as cosponsors” of Yellowhammer Learning Program under the umbrella of Sawyerville Day Camp. The mission was simply to help close the achievement gap and prevent summer learning loss in Greensboro.
With partners in both Birmingham and Greensboro, a planning team was formed and spearheaded by Manning (the visionary, grant writer/solicitor, and community trust builder), Cotton, and Lizzie Robbins (the research analysts, curriculum wizards, and teachers). Meeting throughout the fall and winter, Cotten says, “they researched and wrote effective creative writing plans.” Robbins, with Project Horseshoe Farm and a former Teach for America teacher, played an integral role because she was already entrenched in the Greensboro Elementary School system and knew the children and their needs. She wrote the curriculum for the younger children, and Cotten penned the curriculum for the older kids. Will Wilder, an SDC intern, joined the team as the logistical and transportation coordinator that first summer.
With their sights set on the summer of 2014 to launch the first Yellowhammer Learning Program, the team members were like farmers, preparing the soil with their planning and tilling (academics), gathering supplies (community trust) and fertilizer (enrichment), praying for needed rain (divine intervention), and selecting the seeds/crops (students) they would bring forth for the harvest (minds changed). With its partners, the team and staff piloted the inaugural YLP with three one-week sessions held in the afternoons after SDC. Approximately 20 children from varying age groups participated in creative writing and journaling and mini units of grammar and reading while strengthening their literacy skills. Cotten and Robbins, both certified teachers, led sessions with two to three small group leaders assisting for a total of eight hours of instruction/enrichment.
The YLP staff gleaned much data that first summer to determine how best to move forward. What they began to visualize was a much larger, more extensive program to make it more accessible and available to children who were falling behind. According to the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), “during the school year, youth of all socioeconomic status are learning at relatively the same pace, but middle income youth make slight gains in reading because of enriching experiences provided by families and camps.” Low-income youth, because of a lack of the same experiences as their middle-class peers, lose more than two months in reading achievement during the summer. It is a snowball effect: “Two-thirds of the ninth grade achievement gap between lower and higher income youth can be attributed to unequal summer experiences during the elementary school years.”
“Studies from as early as 1906 confirm that children lose ground in learning if they lack opportunities for building skills over the summer,” says Sarah Pitcock (CEO, NSLA) in an article, co-authored with Bob Seidel, called “Summer Learning: Accelerating Student Success.” In her article, Pitcock emphasizes that “cumulative losses equate significant consequences later in life.” In their research, they discovered “reading during the summer is truly effective as long as two factors are present: access to books that match the reader’s ability level and interests and a focus on comprehension that is monitored by an adult, parent, or teacher.” And then there’s this: “By the end of third grade, four out of five low-income students fail to read proficiently, making them four times more likely to drop out of high school than children who do read proficiently by third grade.”
With a successful 2014 pilot under their belts, a design team was formed to include Manning (SDC executive director); Cotton (design team chair); Jenny Phillips (curriculum team chair); Reverend Kervin Jones; Robbins (Project Horseshoe Farm liaison); Doss Cleveland (SDC liaison); and Wilder (Literacy Council liaison). Moving forward, the design team wanted to strengthen the curriculum base and widen the parental, community, and spiritual support. Meeting throughout the 2014–2015 school year, the team made changes to the program by adding a total of three weeks with 90–120 academic and enrichment hours targeting one age group: rising fifth graders. They chose fifth grade because “by the end of fifth grade, disadvantaged youth are reading nearly three grade levels behind their more affluent peers,” according to the article “Why Summer Learning Deserves a Front-Row Seat in the Education Reform Arena” by Brenda McLaughlin, M.P.P., and Jeffrey Smink, E.D./NSLA. The authors contend that “schools need creative solutions to [narrow] the achievement gap, [and] summer presents an untapped opportunity.”
At the heart of the Yellowhammer Learning Program’s mission is an investment in both academics and enrichment opportunities. They want to help the children grow, not only as students, but also as scholars and citizens. For the 2015 summer, they added grammar and literacy instruction, creative and technical writing, character building, and reading for pleasure and purpose, as well as academically focused enrichment opportunities and extended field trips around Greensboro and neighboring Selma. The curious fifth graders were taught how to use a camera and learned about composition and texture while visiting and photographing historically significant landmarks. In Selma, they toured the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church and visited Arts Revive and the community garden. The summer of 2015 was a huge success for the YLP. When they first assessed the students last April, 58 percent were performing below grade level. By the end of the program in July, 88 percent of the students grew by at least one reading level, and of that 88 percent, 66 percent grew by two levels. Nine students grew by three to five levels in a mere three weeks! “Not only did our students grow academically, but what cannot be tested or shown through results is that these kids were encouraged to enjoy reading, were praised for their efforts, and became more confident in their own abilities,” Manning says. “One child said it best in his final reflection: ‘I really am smart.’”
Now rounding the corner for its third summer, the 2015–2016 YLP design team is preparing to summit even greater heights. “While maintaining [local] teachers, we have added teachers from around the state and small group leaders from various southern colleges and universities,” says Cotten. “We have doubled our budget and continued the successful meal plan that provides breakfast and lunch for the students. The YLP team decided to move away from an activities-based lesson planning to more of a CCRS (College and Career Readiness Standards) and ACOS (Alabama Course of Study) standards-based lesson planning. We will also be focusing on better communication with parents and follow-up with the children throughout the year.”
For the 2016 summer, YLP is offering four weeks of continued literacy and grammar, a new reading intervention curriculum, daily chess lessons, critical thinking development, and character building lessons, as well as STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering/art, and math). Enrichment opportunities will include field trips to McWane Science Center and the Civil Rights Institute. In addition to welcoming a new cohort of rising fifth graders, the 25 students who completed the 2015 program will be invited back as rising sixth graders.
In the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, the rich, fertile land that once was home to the cotton industry is being repurposed. It is being primed for a new harvest of minds that are not and will not be bound by racial divides, poverty, or illiteracy rates. This new crop is yielding bountiful fruit of hope and promise for the next generation. The YLP staff are not only closing the achievement gap and preventing summer reading loss in Greensboro; they are teaching these kids the love of learning—a love that comes from the heart. And when the heart leads, the minds will follow.