Senior project helps kids battle against summer slide


During the two months area students are out of school for summer break, those who don’t read may suffer from “the summer slide.”

When Columbus East High School senior Cortney VanLiew learned that, she knew she had a senior project.

About 25 students participated in the free Rebound by Reading summer reading program, based at Immanuel Lutheran School in Seymour. That’s where VanLiew attended through eighth grade.

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“It’s proven that throughout the summer, there’s huge learning loss,” said VanLiew, who lives in Seymour.

The program ran June 6 through July 25. Students were given bookmarks to track their reading, and VanLiew checked off an image of a basketball for every 10 minutes they read.

It didn’t matter if it was a library book, a book from home or a newspaper. Any type of reading was counted.

They had an option of going to Immanuel for a couple of hours each Monday to pick out a book, read by themselves or read with VanLiew or other volunteers.

The goal was to read 120 minutes per week since research has proven that amount of reading helps counter learning loss, VanLiew said.

“I hope that it helps them to retain some of the learning they did last year so that slide, the learning loss, isn’t as great or isn’t even there at all,” she said. “Just by reading 120 minutes every week, that just keeps your mind refreshed because most kids will go two months without doing anything school-related, so it’s just trying to help them.”

All seniors at Columbus East and Columbus North high schools and Columbus Signature Academy New Tech are required to complete a senior project in order to graduate. It’s 50 percent of their second semester English grade.

Seniors are allowed to start their projects in the summer, but part of it also has to be done during the school year.

VanLiew will conduct a survey to compare the students who participated in the summer reading program and those who didn’t to see what difference it makes. She will apply those results in a research paper.

Then in the spring, two half-days are set aside for the seniors to present their projects to members of the community who serve as judges. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors also attend the project presentations to write a paper for their English classes and also get an idea of what they will have to do when they are seniors.

VanLiew’s project will be among the more than 1,000 presented by seniors from the three Columbus schools.

“There are certain requirements you have to do, but they really want you to stretch yourself and think of something that hasn’t been done yet,” she said.

Once VanLiew came up with her project idea in February, she shared it with her junior English teacher and began working on her proposal. She said she chose a basketball theme because a lot of kids like sports.

In May, she started spreading the word about the program, posting information about it in Immanuel’s school newsletter and having teachers and staff members share the information with students and parents.

VanLiew also applied for and received a service learning project grant through Thrivent to cover expenses, including purchasing snacks and prizes for the students.

Now that the program is over, VanLiew said she feels the students got a lot out of the experience.

“Just watching the kids, I’ve read with some of them one-on-one, and their reading skills are becoming better,” she said. “I really enjoy reading with the kids because it’s just a lot of fun to see them making improvements in their speech. I think their reading level is also improving, which is good.”

VanLiew also stayed an hour later each Monday to work with two students who are a reading level below their classmates.

Through it all, VanLiew said she benefited from the experience, too.

“I think I’ve gotten a better understanding for what it takes to run something, to organize it, to get the money together and set it up,” she said. “I also learned that maybe I could possibly be a teacher just from working with the kids and helping them out, so that’s a big one, especially because I go to college next year, so I need to figure out what I want to do.”

Sandra Franke, a junior high language arts teacher at Immanuel, said she was impressed by VanLiew’s efforts with the summer reading program.

“It speaks of Cortney’s character,” Franke said. “She was an excellent student while she was (a student at Immanuel), and her character was always very positive, very generous, giving. She was also always the one who would help me do anything in the classroom. But for her to go away and then to want to spend all of this time organizing and developing this program for our students here at Immanuel, it has been wonderful.”

Franke said VanLiew gave up a lot of her own time to create and manage the program and even had to step out of her comfort zone a little bit, including meeting with Immanuel officials, writing a grant and sending proposal drafts to Franke.

“Those were all activities that adults in the big world do, and Cortney has been getting that experience, so that has been awesome,” Franke said. “Even though she had a lot of really good traits going into this, I think it has developed her as a person, as well.”

This marked the first time for Immanuel to have a summer reading program, and Franke said she hopes to see it continue.

“I would love for another student to want to continue it or for us to somehow figure out a way because we’ve had students in the building reading, and that’s what teachers always want,” she said.

“We’ve enjoyed seeing the students in the building reading and taking home the books, and we’re hoping when they come back in the fall that it’s not so difficult to get that brain turned on and start reading again,” she said. “We’re very thankful to Cortney for her innovative idea of doing this for our school and then also for her dedication and her hard work.”

VanLiew said it’s great that Columbus schools require senior projects because they help the community.

“The community has given so much to us, and I think this is our way of giving back to the community,” she said.

It meant a lot to her to give back to the school that gave her so much.

“When I was in sixth grade, my teacher was the librarian here also, and she’d ask me and a couple other girls to come in and to help organize the book shelves and put new books in, so I’ve been in the library since then,” VanLiew said.

“It’s weird to think that something in sixth grade sparked my senior project when I didn’t even know I’d need a senior project,” she said. “I definitely think, in my mind, I knew I would come back here because I spent eight years here, and it really helped me grow a lot.”

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