When the most experienced flag football players in the game are in second grade, enthusiasm far outweighs skill.
One player went the wrong way, nearly scoring a touchdown for the other team. Another was skipping far from the main fray. There was an injury timeout when a boy tripped over his untied shoelaces.
It doesn’t look much like literacy instruction, but it’s a vital part of Scholars Unlimited’s approach to bringing kids who are struggling with reading up to grade level, said Jennie Merrigan, the program’s senior director of programs and learning, as she watched about half of the participants at Sheridan School District’s Alice Terry Elementary play during their “enrichment block” on a Monday in November.
After zipping around the school gym for about 45 minutes, that group would go work on a computer program breaking down reading concepts, while the group currently doing their lessons in the cafeteria would get to run. On other days, they might do an art project or dance.
“Kids think they’re just playing,” she said.
Denver-based Scholars Unlimited, previously called Summer Scholars, has been offering literacy help to kids who are behind on reading since the early 1990s. In 2000, it started offering daily after-school programming, and now operates in 10 schools in the Denver area.
Last year, 396 children attended the after-school program, and 475 attended the summer session. More than 80% of kids qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, and the vast majority are children of color.
The majority of participating children who weren’t reading at grade level at the start of the 2021-2022 academic year still weren’t at the end, but the number of children who were meeting grade-level expectations increased 17%, while an additional 5% were scoring above grade level. A larger percentage of participants showed improvement in specific skills, such as vocabulary.
While half of the group at Alice Terry Elementary was playing flag football, the others were working their way through computer programs that try to make concepts like alphabetical order and letter sounds into games. If a student isn’t getting a concept, a cartoon apple on their screen turns red, notifying the staff, Merrigan said.
“Our staff can say, ‘OK, this kid needs a little more support,'” she said.
Social and emotional learning has become an increasingly important part of the program, in addition to literacy skills, said Abenicio Rael, Scholars Unlimited’s president and CEO. The organization is looking for funding to hire social workers to bounce between programs and supplement whatever mental health help students are getting from their schools, he said.
While the group doesn’t have its own mental health professionals at this point, it does try to have one staff member for every 15 students, so kids feel the adults know them and are comfortable asking for help, Rael said. Though the youngest students were only toddlers when the pandemic hit, they’ve also been affected and need support, he said.
“They need that adult relationship and they need to feel safe around an adult,” he said.
Address: 3705 E. 40th Ave, Denver, CO 80205
In operation since: 1993
Number of employees: 13 full-time office staff, 50 on-site staff during program hours
Annual budget: About $2.5 million
Number of clients served: More than 870 children participated in after-school programs and summer sessions last year