Distance Learning Deepens Education Inequality—But San Diego Summer Reading Initiative Levels the Playing Field


Media Contacts:        

Suzy Garcia / Ann Marie Price

Scatena Daniels


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Photos and assets courtesy United Way of San Diego County

“Readers in the Heights – at Home” by United Way of San Diego County and Partner Organizations Prepared 93 City Heights Children for New Online School Year

SAN DIEGO (SEPT. 14, 2020) – Ryan described not really being much of a reader, but after participating this past August in “Readers in the Heights – at Home”, a summer literacy summer, Ryan shared that he read more often, that he loved the activities, and that he can’t wait to participate next year. Along with 92 other students, Ryan benefited from the annual summer reading initiative that promotes active learning for first through third grade students—conducted at-home for the first time ever this year. When asked if Readers in the Heights has changed anything about reading at home, Ryan shared, “Yes, because I usually don’t read a lot. But during Readers in the Heights, I would read, read, read, read, read. Kids should go to Readers in the Heights because it will bring their family together.”

Readers in the Heights – at Home aims to prevent “summer slide,” the loss of literacy gains made during the school year by children who lack access to books during the summer break. The sudden transition to distance learning and other interruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic will likely worsen the summer slide for many low-income children in San Diego County. However, parents who have been surveyed to date, on average, reported that over the course of Readers in the Heights, they read more frequently with their children and for longer periods of time than they do typically. United Way of San Diego County anticipates that these changes in reading habits will positively impact their reading performance this upcoming school year.

Promoting Summer Literacy in City Heights

“We’ve seen Readers in the Heights transform students’ reading abilities, and this year’s virtual model is no exception,” said United Way of San Diego County President and CEO Nancy L. Sasaki. “The COVID-19 pandemic and school districts’ switch to online learning have exacerbated educational inequalities, leaving low-income students even more vulnerable to falling behind. However, using research-proven assessment tools to measure their progress, United Way of San Diego County leveraged the collective areas of our partners’ expertise to help close learning gaps and open new worlds by creating happy, excited and confident readers.”

All Readers in the Heights – at Home students live in the economically and culturally diverse City Heights neighborhood. Twelve different primary languages were spoken at home across the 56 participating families, majorities of whom identified as Asian or African-American. City Heights also has the highest concentration of youth in the county—and, subsequently, the highest number of vulnerable children.

Due to COVID-19, Readers in the Heights transitioned this year from an in-person, camp-like experience to an at-home, family-focused initiative that aimed to build excitement around reading. Two community organizations, City Heights Community Development Corporation and the Karen Organization of San Diego, provided children with weekly literacy kits designed by Words Alive. These kits included books, hands-on activities, and strategies for engaging more deeply in the texts. Sites additionally employed virtual read-alouds and weekly check-ins via text and phone calls to build strong family reading habits, and families received health and masks made by local City Heights vendors, school and art supplies, and back-to-school backpacks.

Since schools have transitioned to distance learning, parents of Readers in the Heights – at Home participants have described struggling with using online platforms and applications. They are also concerned about their kids being bored or understimulated, as well as falling behind. They report needing more resources and support in their primary language, hands-on learning materials, and increased access to instructors, mentors, and/or tutors.

Sasaki added, “This summer was about maintaining connection and supporting learning at home for both parents and children, despite the need to be physically distant. Families weren’t simply given books and literacy-linked projects, they were consistently supported and cheered on by trusted community organizations’ staff.”

The Impact

Across the 56 families that participated, Readers in the Heights distributed 1,500 free books to build their home libraries, 400 activities aligned with weekly readings, 250 masks, and 100 backpacks filled with school supplies just in time for the start of the new school year. An additional 100 books and activity workbooks were given to families with preschool-aged children. Of those parents who have completed the end of program survey thus far, 70% reported that they feel confident in their ability to support their child with reading – an increase of 36 percentage points over the course of the initiative. Additionally, 85% of those families expressed that their child enjoys reading – an increase of 30 percentage points.

Program partners include City Heights Community Development Corporation, Karen Organization of San Diego, Words Alive, San Diego Council on Literacy, City Heights Weingart Library, Fleet Science Center, Traveling Stories, International Rescue Committee Small Business Development Center, RevCult, Target, UWSD’s Women United, and Count Me 2020.

“For the past 100 years, United Way of San Diego County has forged partnerships that respond to our communities’ greatest areas of need,” said Sasaki. “As the social and economic consequences of the pandemic deepen, our goal is to work with our partners to expand the practices used by Readers in the Heights – At Home to other collaborative programming across the county to ensure our students and families are being supported.”

Find more ways to support our communities in need at www.uwsd.org.



For 100 years, United Way of San Diego County has aligned with partners to address inequities in the region and help underserved communities. United Way’s specialty lies in identifying sustainable, long-term goals and achieving them through leveraging data and partners’ expertise to better understand root causes and putting impactful solutions into action.

United Way’s work, in partnership with others, uses shared goals, innovation and proven practices to transform the lives of children, young adults and families in the San Diego region. United Way focuses on educational milestones, such as kindergarten readiness, third-grade literacy, high school preparation, and college and career pathways. Learn more and get involved by visiting www.uwsd.org, Facebook, Twitter, or by calling (858) 492-2000.