A new elementary summer reading program at Hays USD 489 is getting an enthusiastic response from teachers, students and parents.

It’s been at least 20 years since a summer program like this was available to USD 489 students, according to members of the district’s Title I reading staff, who created the program for at-risk students.

“There’s always been some summer services,” said assistant superintendent Shanna Dinkel, naming services for migrant students, the Learning Center and drivers education.

The summer reading camp came about from a need the reading staff saw.

“Really, it came about from discussion from the teachers about looking for grant dollars, knowing the need was there for kids, the desire to help kids continue those reading skills through the summer,” Dinkel said.

“There’s so much research that shows that struggling readers lose a lot of ground over the summer as each grade goes by,” reading teacher Mary Straub said.

“By third grade, there can be a deficit of several years. So I think we all decided to we’ve got to do something to prevent that summer reading loss,” she said.

About that same time, the Dane G. Hansen Foundation announced an education grant program for summer, and the Title I team — Dinkel and teachers Straub, Kay Shippy, Laura Gaughan and Amy Woydziak — put together a proposal.

In April, the foundation awarded the Hays district $48,400, which covers the teachers’ wages, bus transportation and snacks for the students, and the purchase of books for the program.

The summer reading camp — the staff wanted to avoid calling it “summer school” — is serving 120 students from kindergarten to second grade, 10 students from each grade from each of the four elementary schools. Each classroom has two teachers, giving a 1:5 student-teacher ratio.

“The teachers have been commenting about how much they can accomplish. They can really get that one-on-one. They really like that,” Woydziak said.

The students in the program were recommended by their teachers, then parents were contacted.

“Parents overall were very enthusiastic about having the opportunity to have this program for their child,” Straub said. “It’s not like we had to beg kids to come. They were thrilled to have their kids.”

“I know there were parents that wished we probably could have extended the invitations. We started small, but I know the summer program could benefit all kids,” Dinkel said.

The camp is from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursday. Roosevelt and Wilson elementary students attend classes at Wilson, while Lincoln and O’Loughlin elementary students are at O’Loughlin.

The students have been enthusiastic, too, the teachers said, even if a few were reluctant at first. But familiar faces helped with that.

“I witnessed at least two or three times where a student was not really wanting to come in to the classroom until they saw that teacher,” Dinkel said. “Then got really excited. Without that connection we probably would not have had some come back. The relationship was so strong and that was neat to see.”

The teachers practice balanced literacy in their teaching, which includes four components — the teacher reading aloud to the class; shared reading, where the students read together; guided reading, where students read in small groups; and independent reading.

Tuesday at Wilson, for example, teacher Leslie Karlin worked at a table with several kindergarten students forming words with letters on magnetic tiles.

“How about ‘hot’? It’s going to be hot today,” she said, emphasizing the “ha” sound of the h.

After the students formed the word with the magnets, she had them change it to “pot” and then “not,” giving them clues to which letters to use.

Other students lounged in chairs or on the floor around the room for independent reading while others sat at a table for shared reading, chanting the prose of a book in dinosaur voices.

Earlier Tuesday morning, across town at O’Loughlin, students were treated to guests — local children’s author Josh Dechant and his daughter, Marley, 6, a student at Holy Family Elementary. Dechant attended O’Laughlin as a child.

“Who likes dinosaurs?” Dechant asked the kindergartners in his first class, and nearly every hand went up.

Dechant told the students about how he and Marley created their series of books featuring Roara, a red T-rex, and read their first book, “Hello Roara!” to the class.

He and Marley then handed out blank storybooks to the students so they could create their own picture storybooks. Dechant and the teachers circulated among the students as they used markers to draw, asking about their characters and what they were doing.

“I see that they’re loving it and they’re practicing, and that’s what we want,” Gaughan said.

The students are actually proud to be part of the select group, Gaughan said.

“We just don’t ever hear anything negative from the kids. They’re all glad to see their friends and working very hard,” Woydziak said.

What happens outside the summer classrooms might be even more important, the teachers said.

“They get to have a bag and take home that book at night to read with their parents,” Straub said.

The take-home books are geared to a slightly higher reading level to encourage parents to read with their children.

The books are also of high interest to the children, featuring characters from “Star Wars,” “Paw Patrol” and “Sofia the First,” for example.

In addition, students were able to get a library card with the Hays Public Library if they didn’t have one, and some classes will go to the library. And when camp ends at the end of the month, the students will be able to choose a book to take home.

“We’ve learned that kids having the choice to self-select their books had been very motivating for them. So just giving them lots of choices in what they read can be a very motivating factor,” Woydziak said.

In selecting the books for the program, the reading staff chose sets of books that provided six copies of each title for multiple levels of reading. As a bonus, all of those books — totaling in the thousands — will go back to the schools to be used throughout the year.

All students were tested in the spring to asses reading levels, and will be tested again in the fall.

“We always want to try to raise our score, but really over the summer for one month, if they just maintain, to me that’s progress,” Shippy said.

“It’s all to help us do what’s best for the kids,” Dinkel said.