Summer Camp Reading: What One Person Can Do

Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, Ohio
Posted Aug 25, 2021

Summer Camp Reading founders Joe Dehner and the Rev. Canon Noel Julnes-Dehner with executive director Dianne Ebbs.

What can one person inspire to make a difference do? First, she finds partners. Then she persists.

The Rev. Canon Noel Julnes-Dehner was aware––that as a rule––first- to third-grade students learn to read, then from the fourth grade on, they read to learn. And she was troubled by what was happening to students entering the fourth grade not yet knowing how to read.

As research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation research shows, the future of these students will likely be filled with many challenges. They are at risk of failing to graduate from high school and of a lifetime of underemployment because they lacked the tutorial assistance that they needed at a young age to become proficient readers. Such illiteracy can lead to joblessness and a higher propensity for incarceration. Being able to read, process information, and communicate are essential first steps for a successful life.

What can be done to prevent these outcomes for such children?

In 2010, Noel was tutoring children in reading when she and husband, Joe Dehner, had an idea. Working with the Rev. Debbie Gamble, then rector of St. Philips’ Church in Northside, they set up a summer reading program. The next summer they recruited their fellow Christ Church Cathedral member, Dianne Ebbs, a retired school principal and community leader, to join in their effort as executive director. Together, they make things happen.

Now called Summer Camp Reading, the program works with young elementary school children who struggle with reading. Every weekday for six weeks, campers receive one-on-one tutoring with a reading specialist, play literacy games, write in journals, add words to their sight word list, read, listen to the Book of the Day, make a matching craft, exercise, and create a service project to give back to the community.

“Service learning is empowering to children. Our campers choose a project where they help others. Campers at the Christ Church Cathedral site this summer made potholders for the 5,000 Club food ministry,” Joe reports.

And because owning books raises reading scores, every Friday campers choose a book of their own to take home to keep, many of them provided by the Literacy Network and the Public Library.

“The program offers a nurturing environment where the children know they are respected and loved,” says Noel. That, and knowing that “someone is pulling for them,” contributes to the program’s success. Every camper improves.  She and Joe were recognized for this success on behalf of these children when they were named finalists in the Duke Energy Children’s Museum Difference Maker Award a few years back.

Today, SCR has expanded to nine sites, seven in the Cincinnati area, one online, and for the first time one near Columbus. “We teamed with St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington (OH) in 2021, our first out-of-region camp, spreading the summer reading camp movement north,” said Joe. Each site has its own coordinator, assistant, and tutors. The 2021 sites in Cincinnati were Christ Church Cathedral (downtown), Cincinnati Scholar House (Walnut Hills neighborhood), Grace Episcopal Church (College Hill neighborhood), St. Aloysius (Bond Hill neighborhood), St. Simon of Cyrene Episcopal Church (Lincoln Heights neighborhood), Wesley Mission Center Chapel in partnership with Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church (Over-the-Rhine neighborhood), and a site in the Price Hill neighborhood with its growing Hispanic population.

Along with support from these sites, the program receives funding from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation through its Summertime Kids program and the Episcopal Community Ministries, as well as from private donors. Sites contribute to the cost, and the Diocese of Southern Ohio serves as fiscal agent.

All campers are pre-tested for a baseline and post-tested to measure improvement in reading fluency, vocabulary, sight comprehension, and reading comprehension.

Last year’s campers demonstrated a 28% average gain in reading fluency and a 48% average gain in reading comprehension. While the final figures are not yet available for this year’s program, tutors can point to student success. For example, at the beginning of week 3, Nathan repeatedly missed words from similar word families. But once he learned to identify words that contain similarities, he was successful in every attempt to read such words by week 4. At the beginning of week 4, Anna knew only 79 words by sight early in the program, but by learning and implementing new rules and diagraph sounds, by the end of week 5, Anna knew 111 words by sight.

One parent says about the program: “My son has improved tremendously in his reading, and he became much better at using a computer, as well as improved in his ability to read out loud.” 

Other parents report on the growth they see in their children’s confidence, while their teachers see more engagement in the classroom.

“The growth we see in students goes far beyond test scores,” says Dianne. “I have tears in my eyes at our closing assembly each year seeing all that these children have accomplished.”

“At this year’s closing ceremony, I spoke with a parent who told me that at the beginning of camp her son was having a lot of trouble reading. By the end of camp, he read a 62-page book to her with only some help!” says Noel.

“The Spirit weaves SCR into the community, providing a lifeline for children. Thanks be to God,” she says––this woman who continues to build a network of partners, and persists.

For more information about the Summer Camp Reading, contact the Rev. Canon Noel Julnes-Dehner