In Coastal Virginia, 21,000 children live in extreme poverty, which is defined as less than half the federal poverty level.

Research shows that poverty has a major impact on education, meaning that thousands of local children are at risk of falling behind in their education, not to mention the other difficulties associated with poverty. But a local organization, United for Children, is trying to change that.

Created in 2013 as an initiative of the United Way of South Hampton Roads, the program is dedicated to driving educational success for the area’s poorest children to break the cycle of poverty.

United for Children began as an initiative to curb summer learning loss, a common problem among lower-income students. “With limited financial resources there are limited opportunities for these students in the summer, such as educational outings and print resources,” says Dr. Tiffany Hall, United for Children’s school liaison.

In order to combat summer learning loss, United for Children launched a free summer school program in 2013 open to the children of P.B. Young Sr., Elementary. The summer school provides guided enrichment activities, hands-on literacy and math lessons, health education classes and even field trips. In 2014, the program was expanded to Tidewater Park Elementary, and in 2015, Jacox Elementary was added. Additionally in 2015 came an expansion into Suffolk Public Schools, where the most at-risk children from all the elementary schools were selected for a summer school program at Mack Benn, Jr. Elementary.

After realizing how instrumental the summer school program was in helping children succeed, United for Children developed year-round reading programs at Norfolk’s poorest schools. This program is dedicated to providing extra help to Tier 3 students, the ones most at risk of not meeting the requirements of the SOL tests. For these students, United for Children is focused on providing private read-aloud opportunities during the school day.

“Read aloud has been found to be one of the best ways to improve reading comprehension and support early childhood literacy, and it’s essential to the acquisition of early language skills,” Hall explains, adding that poor literacy skills are often linked to poverty. A 2003 study by University of Kansas researchers found that students from low-income families hear 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers do before the age of 4. By the time these children begin school, they’re already significantly behind in language skills.

“A lot of language development happens through reading aloud in the home, as well as educational experiences, like trips to the zoo and museums,” Hall says. “In affluent homes, there are more opportunities for these activities. When you’re dealing with the stress as a result of limited resources—like concern for your most basic needs to be met—these things that many of us see as leisurely activities just aren’t possible. And when students don’t come to school with the background knowledge to make connections between themselves and the text, they come in at a disadvantage. They don’t have the foundational knowledge to build upon.”

With read-aloud programs now implemented at P.B. Young, Tidewater Park, Jacox Elementary and Ruffner Middle School to help Tier 3 students grow in their reading abilities, along with summer school programs to reinforce these skills and provide foundational knowledge and experiences for all students, United for Children is making strides to reverse these trends. Between the four schools, they are reaching nearly 2,500 students.

“Our goal is to touch all the schools that lead to Booker T. Washington—a high school that at one point had the highest dropout rate in the state. We want to change the outcome for the kids who end up there,” Hall says. “The ultimate goal for United for Children is to break the cycle of poverty and level the playing field for these kids.”

United for Children is always looking for volunteers to help with the year-round reading program and summer school. Learn more here.

Here are 12 volunteer mentorship programs that you can get involved with in Hampton Roads.

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