The state Department of Education hopes a federal grant of nearly $800,000 will help secondary students meet standards in reading and help schools develop effective ways to teach it.
Roseanne Demmert of Klawock said she believes her 13-year-old daughter, an eighth-grader who was in the program this summer, will be more likely to retain what she learned.
"Before, she would lapse back and forget things," Demmert said. "With the continuation, it helped her retain her reading abilities."
The High Intensity Summer Reading Program, now in its second year, is giving at least 72 hours of extra help this summer to about 600 students throughout 22 school districts.
The state's drive is to help students in grades eight through 11 pass the reading portion of the state's high school exit exam. Starting with the Class of 2004, students must pass reading, writing and math tests to get a diploma.
"If the state wants us to pass this test, then they're going to have to provide the money to help us do that," said Linda Hardin, director of curriculum and staff development for the Ketchikan schools.
Ketchikan chose 68 students for the program, which is voluntary, because they did poorly on standardized tests or the state's eighth-grade benchmark test in reading.
Ketchikan focused on the students' writing as part of their reading program.
"At the high school level, it's been a big boost," Hardin said. "When you're working with two or three students, you can really look at their writing process and what they're missing" from the state's writing standards.
Ardy Smith Miller, the reading and language arts specialist for the state Department of Education, said the agency offered the program partly to identify the models of instruction that really make a difference.
"After we know that, we may say to other school districts we'll fund what works," she said.
The state wanted the work to be intensive. It required that school districts, which had to compete to get the grants, offer instruction to each student for at least three hours a day, four days a week over six weeks. It limits students to no more than 10 per teacher.
The grants pay for teachers, materials and student support such as bus passes or child care.
Demmert, the Klawock parent, said teachers spent a lot of time with her daughter.
"It was more one-on one. It wasn't a full-sized class. They spread it out so the kids really enjoyed going. Because like most kids, they don't really like going back to school," Demmert said.
But she's still concerned that some students just don't test well, and that the schools don't necessarily teach what students need to know to pass the tests.
"The reading program will help her," Demmert said of her daughter. "But will she get a high school diploma? It would be a hard call."
The Sitka schools used the grant to target motivated students with good attendance who needed to meet the state reading standards, rather than the usual summer school student who doesn't want to be there, said Cindy Harvey, who runs the summer school.
"We wanted to put the effort into kids who would get the most out of it," Harvey said.
Students read newspapers and the state driver's education manual, took trips to the library, played vocabulary games and acquired some test-taking skills, she said.
Anchorage used its grant for students who failed English in grades nine or 10, or failed the high school exam in reading or writing, said Jim Bailey, who coordinates the high school summer school.
The school district tried to motivate students to read by taking them to bookstores and letting them select books, he said. Teachers already have the skills to teach reading, but they need small classes and money for materials, Bailey said.
Juneau hasn't applied for grants in the two years of the program, state officials said. But the district's enrollment in summer school is up from the past, and the courses are much more aligned with the English and math curriculum, Assistant Superintendent Peggy Cowan told the Juneau School Board last week.
The state requires participating school districts to test the students before and after the program. About 92 percent of students who participated last year improved in local assessments, said program manager Paul Prussing of the state Department of Education.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.