Until last summer, Helena didn’t have a summer program for low-income kids who were struggling academically.

That’s when the YMCA stepped in and started the YMCA Summer Literacy Academy at Bryant School, with 13 kids signed up.

Now they’re entering year two, running June 19 to Aug. 9.

They’d already enrolled 23 students as of last week and are making room for more. All are either going into first or second grade.

“We’re very excited that the school district has really gotten on board this year,” said Helena YMCA CEO David Smith.

This year Helena School District is kicking in about $7,000 to help expand the program to 45 kids.

The national YMCA of the USA and a private donor are also helping to make this happen, and the program will use AmeriCorps volunteers to help, as well.

Last year’s summer students more than maintained academically, they made significant gains during the summer. Those going into second grade gained a minimum of one-third of a year academically, while some gained a half-year.

“One of the first things we do when the students come to us is we have them take a STAR standardized test (for reading), which is the same test the district uses,” said YMCA Youth Development Director Darla Dexter.

“We then group the students based on their ability,” she said. And the test determines “what skills we’re going to work on.”

“Each morning we spend about two-and-a-half hours doing literacy,” she said, done in four blocks.

They also offer free breakfast, lunch and a snack.

The afternoon is open for enrichment activities, said Smith, which is “very intentionally done."

If it’s a walk to the Parrot candy store, they will focus not only on moving through traffic safely, she said, but also reading street signs.

Trips can be swimming at the YMCA, walking downtown or to the movies, or a trip to the Missoula water park.

They also write thank-you notes to any place they visit, Dexter said, so they get to use their writing skills.

Another fun activity was having the children work with an MSU Extension agent to plant and care for garden boxes at Bryant and to learn about nutrition.

The summer program involves parents, said Dexter, and asks them to make a commitment that their children will attend as much as possible and that they read to them 20 minutes a day.

“We’ve already identified the kids in danger,” said Dexter.

Children from low-income households may be particularly likely to lose ground academically compared to their classroom peers, said Smith. Typically, low-income kids can fall behind one-third of a year over summer.

By fifth grade, they can be struggling so much that they become likely drop out candidates by high school.

There’s a correlation between parents’ education level and their children’s vocabulary, Smith added. When these children enter kindergarten they may lack the vocabulary to say a full sentence.

“When we got into (doing) the after school program in September 2014 at Bryant, what we saw was pretty eye-opening in a community that is well educated and affluent,” said Smith. “That was a precursor to this.”

The summer school program is about “breaking the cycle of poverty,” he said.

“If you get parents and grandparents involved,” said Dexter, “a lot of change can happen. It’s about inviting them in and building the relationship.”

“There just isn’t any question that there is real value in offering summer school activities to students with those particular needs,” said Helena Schools Superintendent Jack Copps, “so they do not begin the new school year in the fall with a deficit.”

“I like partnerships, especially when it comes to learning,” he added. “We should not conduct ourselves as if we live on an island. We need to work with other educational entities in supporting the goals ... and aspirations ... of each organization. In so doing, we end up saving money because of the partnerships.”

Families that are interested in more information about registering can call Darla at the YMCA at 442-9622.

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 or marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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