Duke, Methodists offer summer literacy programs


Monica Oakes (left) and Abbey Lauten, (center) co-coordinators of a new summer literacy program at First United Methodist Church, and the Rev. Benny Oakes, pastor of the church, prepare to pack gift bags for area students enrolled in the six-week-long program summer literacy program funded by the Duke Endownment. The books were going-away gifts for 22 elementary school-age participants.


By Kesha Williams

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Twelve United Methodist churches, including First United Methodist Church in Elizabeth City, are recipients of a grant from the Duke Endowment that supports summer literacy programs for select elementary students in rural communities.

These summer literacy programs are designed to assure that participants, between first and fourth grade, are improving their reading skills over the summer and are reading proficiently by third grade.

At First United Methodist Church, Monica Oakes, the church’s director of family ministries, served as co-director of the summer literacy program with Abbey Lauten, the church’s director of education and outreach. Their summer literacy program ran from June 24 through Aug. 2. The church received a $139,000 grant from Duke that will cover expenses for three summers.

Oakes and Lauten said they were encouraged by the youths responses to 90 hours of literacy instruction. They were also encouraged by the favorable responses from parents/guardians.

Oakes and Lauten said several community partners assisted with transportation, meals, and accommodations for the youths during field trips.

“For some of our families overcoming transportation was a barrier. We worked with Kids Taxi and they transported students to church site and back home,” Oakes said. “Outside partnerships helped and our church has matched with costs.”

“Duke Endowment requires parents to agree to participate and show support for the kids,” she said. “Our parents really seemed to enjoy in our family night programs.“

Those family night programs were designed to help parents/guardians determine ways to promote reading within the family and ways to improve kids’ reading and writing skills. Trips to the local library exposed the kids to services there and assured the kids they could find an affordable supply of reading materials. The students were encouraged to return often with family members so the library becomes a routine site on the list of family outings.

First United Methodist Church served 22 students who were referred by the local school system. They plan to service the same students over the next two summers unless school test scores indicate so much progress that this literacy program is no longer tailored to their reading levels. Oakes said they plan to serve up to 36 students in the future.

“We participated in a data collection program, a research study,” Oakes said. “It started with one site then went to three. The staff with Duke Endowment saw success and replicated it. We are part of that model, and hope that rural churches participating with this project will show this literacy program works.”

Most of the students participating in the local program finished kindergarten last spring while one student was in second grade.

Oakes and Lauten said they want to make sure students realize the support students found at the church doesn’t end with the summer literacy program. The two plan to maintain communication with parents over the school year. Most of all, Oakes said the summer literacy program has been means for the the church to help local residents cross barriers and determine what people have in common. Strong communities exist when residents are literate and when they share resources.

“We had black, white and Latino students sitting around the tables enjoying their classes. They are learning with people who are right where they are but not competing or feeling like they have to live up to expectations that cannot meet,” Oakes said.

“Their confidence is greater. It is a loving, supportive environment where the kids and their parents can say when something was covered in class they didn’t understand,” Oakes said. “Abbey (Lauten) spoke Spanish to interact with our Spanish speaking kids and parents.

On the last day of the summer literacy program, staff and volunteers packed and distributed cloth bags with free books. Their intention was to ensure students continue reading until the fall school year begins. They also wanted kids to build a collection of books they can share with siblings and friends.

Oakes, Lauten and other church staff involved with the research study will relay their notes to the Duke Endowment. Staff there say the collection of data from each of the 12 programs will be reviewed to determine the effectiveness of their instruction model.

A report from the Duke Endowment cites that rural communities often have limited resources and struggle to meet the many needs of their inhabitants. Since churches often meet social needs of the town residents, a collaboration with United Methodist churches allows the Duke Endowment to host these summer literacy programs.

“We know from an external evaluation that this summer literacy model has helped students improve their reading accuracy, speed and comprehension,” said Kristen Richardson-Frick, associate director of the Duke Endowment’s Rural Church program area.

“Just as exciting is the fact that students reported positive changes in their reading behaviors and attitudes. We’re pleased to support churches that want to embrace this opportunity to meet a critical need in their communities.”