HICKORY – From digging for worms, to making your own soda, to thanking police officers for what they do, first through third grade students in Hickory Public School’s Read to Achieve summer reading camp had a busy end to the program in late July.

“I’ve been pleased with the activities I’ve seen. After all, it is summer so teachers have tried real hard to make learning reading fun for them, incorporating science content and kids love those things,” Terry Ashley, site director for the HPS Read to Achieve summer camps said.

Read to Achieve is a state funded program that started in 2013 and requires all public schools in North Carolina to hold summer reading camps focused on ensuring students read at or above grade level at the end of third grade. School systems encourage students who are below proficiency to attend the camp.

Hickory Public School (HPS) scheduled their camp from July 11-28 (Monday – Thursday) at Longview Elementary.

It was a full day for students with breakfast and lunch served. Classes also were half the normal size with no more than 12 students in each. Students got more one-on-one time with instructors and could be more involved in discussions.

Still, teachers looked for innovative ways to keep the 185 students in the program engaged during a time of the year when they’re thinking more about a beach than a book.

“The only state requirement is we have to have it for twelve days,” HPS Assistant Superintendent Dr. Denise Patterson said. “I think the uniqueness around it has come from the leadership of Ms. Ashley and certainly from the teachers, creating some dynamic lessons and getting the students really engaged in their reading opportunities during the summer.”

Getting a chance to dig into a box of dirt and then seeing the subject of the book they’re reading wriggling in their own hands certainly had Kim Heckler’s second grade students engaged in the class.

Heckler, the assistant principal at Grandview Middle School, turned to worms as a learning tool because of books about gardening the class was reading.

“I look for topics that interest the kids that will capture their attention but also meet the standard I’m trying to teach,” Heckler said. “We were looking at scientific ideas and how when we read non-fiction it has an order, first, second, third.”

The hook was to show the students worms and then get them excited about reading and learning more about them, going from a main idea to details.  

“When they find the answer to one of their questions in the text, you know you have the spark, you lit it and it’s right there,” Heckler said.

Third-graders at the camp also used their writing skills to impress local law enforcement. They wrote thank you letters to the Hickory Police Department, expressing why they appreciated the work they did.

Hickory Police Officer Mike Crisp, who has been in law enforcement for 27 years, also connected with the idea of the camp being an experience the students can take with them into the future.

“Right now they’re impressionable,” Crisp said. “The true test I think is the next five- to 10-year window when they start getting around that peer pressure not to be smart, so they have to be smart and say, ‘I’m going to continue with my education because I want to be somebody.’”

Patterson said the school system also appreciated the state allowing first and second grade students at the camp this year.

“I think they’re supporting our thoughts about we need as many students in as possible and as early as possible in their learning time in school,” she said. “We’re really capturing their attention with reading early on as opposed to waiting until third grade.”

While there was plenty of fun stuff for the students at the camp, what’s school without tests and the state does require testing at the end of the program for third-graders to gauge improvements.

Patterson and Ashley agreed the key is to see any improvement and to encourage a love of reading that they take with them the rest of their lives.

“Naturally it all begins at the elementary level,” Ashley said. “We are building readers, so they get this extra time during the summer…we’re hoping to bring them up and make a difference for next year and years to come.”

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