FROM SCRATCH: ThinkStretch

Summer lessons for children in the primary grades should no longer solely be the province of families with the resources to provide remedial help for their offspring – or those fostering the next Scripps National Spelling Bee champ (Wordmongers, go! Humuhumunukunukuapuaa). The thinking today is that everyone benefits when the whole class keeps the books open through the lazy-daisy days of summer.

While working a few years ago to address the disparities in MEAP test scores between racial and socioeconomic groups in the Ann Arbor school district, Donna Lasinski, creator of the ThinkStretch Summer Learning Program ™, was surprised to learn that "two-thirds of the [achievement] gap between a high-performing and a low-performing high school student is what they do during the summers of their elementary school years."

Summer brain drain

This recent research out of Johns Hopkins University found that with each summer break, most students lost about two months of math proficiency; lower-income students also lost two months of reading achievement. This accumulates to 18 months' difference in verbal ability by the end of fifth grade, Lasinski, founder and president of Ann Arbor-based ThinkStretch LLC, says. 

In recognition of this issue, President Obama, during his tenure in the Senate, sponsored the 
STEP UP act, the first-ever Federal bill aimed at summer learning. Congress passed the bill in 2007, but it was never funded. Accordingly, a movement is afoot for a 2010 budget allocation. Sounds like a no-brainer – wouldn't Michigan benefit economically if there were no bounds on student achievement?

"It started to formulate in my mind that we shouldn't be leaving all this learning on the table. We shouldn't just end the school year and walk away from all this learning and let children and families just fend for themselves all summer," says Lasinski, who also co-chairs theAnn Arbor PTO Council. 

The longtime volunteer has served as either a PTO president or treasurer for the last six years, and holds a couple of business degrees: an MBA from Northwestern University and a BBA from the University of Michigan. 

Workbook wise

Thus, as a gift to Haisley Elementary, the school attended by her three sons, she implemented a summer learning program for its students. Unable to find affordable materials for purchase, she developed grade-specific workbooks with eight weeks of lessons: reading, writing, math, and a bonus activity (typically science), all based on Michigan grade level content expectations and vetted by dozens of teachers and parent teams.

The following year, other schools requested her books. As the math worksheet copyrights were valid for only one school, she learned basic graphic arts and created original teacher-reviewed math materials. By the end of the second year, all content was original.

During that time, signs that she was on the right train of thought abounded. Approval came from the parent and teacher community, to start. Then came invitations to present at the Celebration of Innovation and Excellence and Appreciation event sponsored by the Ann Arbor Public Schools Education Foundation, which has given grants to schools to purchase the program. Encouragement from author and 826 National co-founder Dave Eggers soon followed. Eggers listed her workbooks on hisOnce Upon a School website, which honors innovation in public education. 

And so ThinkStretch workbook version three – and her business – were born in December 2008, when she hired Quack! Media to create an animated video, graphics, and characters to attract children to the books. 826 Michigan, the Ann Arbor branch of the national non-profit tutoring and creative writing center, helped her develop engaging writing prompts. And artists at letterform drew the professor and brain themed characters

The ThinkStretch program costs between $8 and $10 per child, depending on the size of the school, Lasinski explains, and is not for individual sale. Rather, it's available only on either the grade-wide or the school level so that every child has the opportunity to participate. The cost may be covered through district or Title I funds or parent contributions. This community-based approach distinguishes it from the only other summer study options on the market – workbooks retailing for $15 to $60 that are not tied into schools.

Schools hold a kick-off assembly in the spring to explain the program, and then materials are distributed. Each school receives one workbook per student, a coordinator guide, parent guides with answer keys and suggested learning extension activities, plus achievement medals to be awarded when students turn completed workbooks in to their teachers in the fall. 

Students spend about 1-2 hours a week on the workbook activities, plus additional free reading time. The work is based on what they should know securely by year-end, and can be completed without parental support. Or schools can personalize the program – for example, parents and teachers can hold weekly playground meetings where kids can complete their workbooks. When kids attend the fall medal ceremony, the next year participation rates at each school increase by 45 percent, Lasinski says.

This program is not available online, and is deliberately writing-based, she explains, because kindergarten through second grade students need to write with their hands, while third through fifth graders' typing cannot keep pace with their minds. 

Sales volumes

This summer, four schools in Ann Arbor, plus one in New York City and one in Idaho will be using the program, while two schools in Texas are very close to committing. As the book came out in February, relatively late in the school budgeting cycle, she considers these sales a triumph.

She's working with leads until the season closes on May 15. "My sales right now are typically to the parent-teacher organizations, which are bringing it in as grass roots and then hoping the districts will then pick it up once they see the value."

Her biggest challenge, she says, has been "getting the opportunity to tell my story." For example, an initial targeted email campaign didn't bring any responses. Earlier in April, though, her presentation at Ann Arbor SPARK's Mix and Mingle event for entrepreneurs gave entrée to local PTOs and school districts.

Lasinski has spoken at PTO and PTA conventions in Texas, New Jersey, and Michigan, and next year hopes to speak at the national PTO conference in Florida and to work with the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan.

She's also just returned from the National Conference for Summer Learning, where she met the dean for education at Johns Hopkins University. Over 400 program leaders, superintendents, and Title I directors from all over the country attended. 

Next fall, the book budget is expanding. About 25 schools, including some from Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas, and Hawaii have slotted her in for consideration in the next fiscal year. And custom publication options are boundless. The Ann Arbor public school district has 67 languages, so to start with, she's working to have the parent guides translated into Spanish. A St. Paul, Minnesota area district has requested a Hmong translation.

Inevitably, the possibility of including middle and high schools comes up at conferences, she says. While she's very amenable to doing so, that would entail hiring curriculum specialists. "The nation has very similar curriculum standards for elementary school because it's based on developmental milestones and objectives," she explains, but "The variety becomes much broader at the middle school level – one school may be studying Rome and the other the American Revolution." 

It would be nice, though, if in addition to workbooks Lasinski could print money. She has personally funded nearly $50,000 in start-up costs, including media and graphics product development, convention attendance, and brochures and sample books. This year's first round of sales will cover the materials costs, but will not yet begin to dent the start-up investment.

But that's fine with her, for now. Rather than charging enough to cover her development costs as quickly as possible, "It's priced in a way that it really is a full school program and it satisfies my social mission of trying to get it into as many children's hands as possible, to build that peer community learning experience."

This summer, she's taking a test. Choose one or more of the following: A) take on a business partner with expertise in the educational market; B) focus on a commissioned sales force; C) become a resident of a virtual business incubator or shared space; D) a publisher and an educational company may be interested in adding ThinkStretch to their product lines.

Meanwhile, her sons, ages 12, 9, and 7, will continue testing her programs over their break. "They're very supportive, honest, enthusiastic, and responsive to my books – really uncensored and that gave me another message that I'm on track, that I'm heading in the right direction," she muses.

Within two years, and with additional personnel as part of a well-honed sales and marketing plan, her goal is to sell 10,000 units for each volume (K-5), or about 60,000 books in total. An average school orders about 250 copies. Michigan alone has more than one million elementary students, she says, so distributing 60,000 books is hardly a fairy-tale story. "The elementary market is so large that it does seem manageable," she figures.

In the long term, she would like to partner with a nonprofit foundation to disburse grants for PTO purchases and to get the books into specific communities. Business dreams, though, mean sacrifice in the short term. "My family has gone months without their kitchen table because I've had pages and workbooks and things strewn about. It's been an evolution for me as it grew organically and I came to understand that what I had done was really a value to the community and had the potential to become valuable to a much larger community than my sons' school." 

When school is out next summer, she just may be able to move her books off the table – and out of the garage. It would make her family – and the delivery people – happy, she laughs. "I hope by this time next year I have a warehouse space with a loading dock!"

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor at Metromode, where this article first appeared. She is also a regular contributor to Concentrate.

All Photos by Marvin Shaouni

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