SAISD Harlandale students read their first books in the Super Summer Readers Program on Mays Boys & Girls Club playground.
SAISD students read their first books in the Super Summer Readers Program on the Boys & Girls Club of San Antonio playground. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Local philanthropist Harvey Najim has spent years contemplating solutions to problems in San Antonio’s education system.

Now he thinks he has a solution pegged.

“What I’ve been concerned about is the number of kids that fall behind and why they fall behind,” Najim told the Rivard Report. “I’ve finally narrowed it down to the fact that low-income children suffer from what’s called summer learning loss.”

After isolating this problem, Najim came up with the idea for a summer program that would not only bridge the gap between the previous school year and the next, but also attempt to advance students’ learning during the off time.

To illustrate the idea of the “summer slide,” Najim began a press conference Tuesday by launching himself down the slide of the Boys & Girls Club playground in a red reflective cape. After exiting the slide, he, along with leaders from the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio, SA Youth, and San Antonio Youth Literacy, announced the start of the Super Summer Readers program.

Harvey Najim illustrates a literal version of the summer slide.Harvey Najim illustrates a literal version of the summer slide.
Philanthropist Harvey Najim demonstrates a literal version of the summer slide. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“As a community, we must acknowledge and address the fact that reading achievement gaps in high school students across the United States can be attributed in large part to unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years,” said Deborah Valdez, executive director of SA Youth Literacy.

The 10-week program will serve as a pilot for what could become a larger endeavor in future years. Super Summer Readers will take 1,500 San Antonio and South San Antonio Independent School District students who have just completed the second, third, and fourth grades and divide them into three groups.

The first group will be given eight books to read at home with their parents. The second group will receive eight books to read three times a week with a “reading sidekick” at the Boys & Girls Club and SA Youth. The final, control group, won’t receive any books from the program.

Najim said SA Youth Literacy will analyze the group members’ reading scores at the beginning and end of the summer to determine the efficacy of the program. He estimates the first group will stay at the same reading level and the second will move up one or two levels.

Najim projects the last group, whose scores will likely reflect the results of many low-income students who lack access to educational resources over the summer, will lose a reading level.

If all goes well and the program shows improvements in reading scores, Najim said he hopes to expand the program to 8,000 to 10,000 students next summer.

“If [reading scores improve], next year I want to go to all my rich friends and say we need to raise a couple million bucks, we are going to do this for 10,000 kids,” he said.

Najim told the Rivard Report that his current investment in the program is $240,000. To expand the program to 10,000 students, he estimates he will have to solicit donations somewhere between $2 million and $2.5 million.

He said the pilot nature of the program is important to establish a baseline to attract investors.

“I only give money out if I can see proven outcomes,” he said.

In addition to expanding reading lessons, Najim said he believes the program could grow to include math lessons next year. Education nonprofit Reasoning Minds approached him prior to Tuesday’s launch to include math programming, Najim said, but he wants to wait until 2019 for that kind of expansion.

Students read books at the launch of the Super Summer Readers Program on Mays Boys & Girls Club playground.
Students read books at the launch of the Super Summer Readers Program on Mays Boys & Girls Club playground. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Research from the Brookings Institute underscores the phenomenon of “summer learning loss.” A 2017 analysis indicates that this “summer slide” tends to impact low-income students more than their peers.

“[I]ncome-based reading gaps grew over the summer, given that middle class students tended to show improvement in reading skills while lower-income students tended to experience loss,” the analysis stated.

Najim said another group of 225 KIPP Esperanza Dual Language Academy students will also participate in the program this summer. This group will be given books to read at home. He said these students’ participation will help the partnership see if “the charter school curriculum is any different than the public school curriculum.”

Once students read 300 pages, they will receive a free T-shirt, H-E-B gift card, Whataburger meal, book bag, and movie pass.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.