Children plunged their hands into shaving cream and spread it around on cookie sheets so they could write vocabulary words with their fingers Thursday at Gertrude Walker Elementary School.

In the hallway, students were standing on and jumping from pieces of paper marked with numbers to other pieces of paper, adding the numbers, counting or saying them.

While the action was in a school building, they weren't your typical school activities. They were part of a new effort by Garden City educators to maintain kids' reading levels through the summer break. 

Kansas Reading Roadmap, a statewide initiative to help children become proficient readers that launched in 2014, created a program to combat summer learning loss that kicked off in Garden City on June 6 and continues until July 22. KRR programs have been adopted by several school districts across the state and target districts with a large percentage of low income students receiving free meals.

The program was spearheaded by Gov. Brownback in 2013. He reallocated $9 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to pay for KRR, now a project of the Kansas Department for Children and Families in partnership with the Kansas Department of Education. KRR is a model for schools to change their learning systems, restructure and reorganize for academic improvement.

According to its website, it consists of three components that schools can integrate into their existing systems: summer reading, after-school and family programs.

This fall, schools in Garden City will add after-school and family programs to enhance their existing academic framework.

The summer program is held at five locations: Gertrude Walker, Buffalo Jones, Florence Wilson, Abe Hubert and Victor Ornelas elementary schools.

Leigh Ann Roderick, USD 457 director of elementary education and Garden City's KRR director, estimates each school in Garden City has about 50 to 60 children in the summer program. The student-teacher ratio is 8 to 1, which she said is rare for a summer program. The maximum capacity for each school is 75.

Roderick said the numbers are good for a new program that was started quickly. Paperwork was completed in late May.

“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to those coordinators who worked really hard and spent many, many hours getting things in place,” Roderick said.

Jamie Schweer, program coordinator for KRR at Gertrude Walker, said preparation for the program was rushed, with coordinators meeting in April and completing training in May. After training, coordinators had a week to identify students who would benefit most from the program and send information to parents.

“Things kind of happened really quick in a short amount of time,” Schweer said.

Some of the activities children have participated in have been community service, producing and performing a play, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities with Legos, building robots and simple machines and science experiments.

If they complete five hours of reading and math each week, students get to participate in Friday Fun Day. Those days typically involve a field trip. Children get to visit places and events like Lee Richardson Zoo, the library, Boot Hill in Dodge City, the Beef Empire Days story hour and Royal Farms Dairy.

Lindsey Shull, KRR coordinator at Abe Hubert, said she likes that the program is unlike a traditional classroom environment. Pencils and chairs are not used. Interactive reading activities are the basis of the program. She said that part of the fun is team-building activities in the afternoon.

“Our kids were like, ‘Oh, school again,’ when they heard about the program. But when they started (participating), the excitement appeared,” Shull said. “They really love it now.”

Maintaining reading levels

Student reading and math scores typically dip over the summer, something known as summer learning loss.

KRR’s six-week summer program was developed to keep low income elementary school students (K-3) with lower scores reading throughout the summer so they return in the fall at benchmark or higher levels in reading and math.

KRR also has an after-school program and a family involvement program, FAST (families and schools together), both of which will start in Garden City in the fall. That program only will focus on reading, while the summer program includes math.

Statewide participation

Fifty-six schools across the state are participating in KRR this summer. In addition to Garden City, Meade and Hugoton are the other two western Kansas districts participating. 

Hugoton Elementary School started KRR in the summer of 2014 and implemented the after-school and FAST programs that fall.

Jacque Teeter, KRR program coordinator in Hugoton, said teachers have seen much improvement in children who participate.

FAST is a weekly, eight-week program that brings families together to play games, share a meal and do various other activities.

“It’s a continuum from the school day. It just seems to all flow together really well,” Teeter said.

The program incorporates reading into a fun learning environment.

“We don’t call it summer school. It’s been Camp Explorer. So we don’t really say we’re going to summer school, it’s more like going to a camp,” Teeter said.

Teeter said attendance is high each summer, and students tell her they cannot wait until summertime to participate in the Camp Explorer program.

Each day, a free breakfast is served before students begin at 8:30 a.m. and rotate through four to five learning stations. Each rotation lasts about 40 minutes, depending on the situation. Lunch is provided. and the program ends at 1:30 p.m.

Students are divided into groups by reading level, not grade. 

Teeter said there’s not a lot of paperwork or pen and paper involved. She said it’s mostly fun games and activities.

School finance concerns

KRR is solely funded through the Department of Children and Families with money from the TANF fund.

For the five schools in Garden City, it cost $200,000 to get the program rolling, according to Tiffany Lawson, the program manager for western Kansas.

While it partners with the state education department, it doesn't get money directly from the department, something Roderick had been concerned about given the state's current school finance issues. 

Kansas schools could shut down if the Kansas Legislature does not come up with a constitutionally acceptable school finance formula by June 30. A special legislative session is scheduled to begin Thursday.

However, because KRR uses public school buildings, if schools were to shut down, KRR would have no place to go.

“If the schools shut down, KRR will have to stop, too. I really hope that doesn’t happen,” Lawson said.

KRR has looked at alternative locations like public libraries, but there are few large enough to accommodate the number of students participating in the programs.

Other summer programs

The Reading Roadmap is not the only educational summer program available to Garden City students.

Books on the Bus is a traveling library that visits Garden Spot Apartments, Buffalo Jones Elementary School and the Big Pool. It was started to meet the reading needs of children unable to visit the Finney County Library to participate in the summer reading program, bringing books to young readers.

Books on the Bus, or B.O.B., is funded by the Finnup Foundation and also is incorporated with the children's Meals on Wheels program, so it provides books and a free sack lunch for students 18 and younger. However, it also would be affected if Garden City Schools were shut down July 1 because the program uses school facilities and resources.