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Adapting and Harnessing the Collective to Support Striving and Struggling Readers in Rural Iowa

According to a report issued by McKinsey & Company in January of 2023, the pandemic erased more than 20 years of progress on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test results. If future trends continue, it will take decades to recover from this learning loss. In Grinnell, Iowa, community organizations have come together to partner in new ways to successfully reverse the ”summer slide.”

The Partnership

The Grinnell Education Partnership (GEP), a Campaign for Grade Level Reading affiliate in Grinnell, Iowa, provides the collaborative “backbone” infrastructure to bring together 30+ community organizations in co-creating solutions to address emerging educational needs in our small rural town. Grinnell is home to Grinnell College (with an enrollment of roughly 1,700 undergraduate students) and a school district of a roughly 1500 student enrollment which had traditionally offered a focused summer school program for students identified for additional support. Since the Partnership’s inception in 2015, partner organizations have convened a summer learning collaborative to mitigate summer learning loss among elementary students.

The Connection

Now in its eighth year, the Grinnell summer learning collaborative seeks to improve grade-level reading skills for all students attending summer enrichment programs in Grinnell. The collaborative brings together five Grinnell programs, with the support of two place-based anchor institutions who serve as the collaborative infrastructure for the group - leveraging both human and institutional resources to the partners for shared planning throughout the year, identify additional funding and staffing support, and lead the recruiting, interviewing, placement, and training process for a team of AmeriCorps Summer Learning members – who are distributed across the programs through a shared selection and placement process to provide critical capacity for these summer programs to innovate, collaborate, and offer far greater enrichment opportunities for area youth.

Participating programs

The daily programs (SLICK and LINK) share a site and staffing in order to maximize their shared resources while providing different options for area families. Summer Learning is Cool for Kids (SLICK), a Grinnell-Newburg Community School District hosted summer school program; Lead. Inspire. Nurture. Keep. (LINK), an after school educational and enrichment program that becomes full-day in the summer; Drake Community Library (DCL) summer programming; Grinnell College Museum of Art (GCMoA) summer programming; and Grinnell Area Summer Camp (GASC). Six teachers from the Grinnell-Newburg School District (GNCSD) staff the SLICK program and team with 10 AmeriCorps members to provide direct instruction and literacy-focused interventions. The SLICK program shares one of the district’s elementary school buildings with LINK. Leveraging this shared location, SLICK’s10 AmeriCorps members share time with LINK to provide literacy enrichment activities for that program as well. This extraordinary partnership impacted a total of 229 children this summer.

The programs have developed a mutually beneficial partnership as well – together offering free art and literacy enrichment at sites throughout the city. Together these programs share three AmeriCorps members who create experiences for children via weekly visits to the SLICK, LINK, and the GASC programs, and offer a weekly story-time-art-in-the-park outing at different parks in Grinnell – including underserved areas of our community. A total of 2,373 kids (some weekly participants) engaged in this programming in the summer of 2023. For a town of under 10,000 residents, we find these attendance numbers astounding.

Outside of the enrichment programming, programs have also collaborated to address other social determinants of health and family thriving. In both 2022 and 2023, with support from community funding, Art-in-the-Park and DCL programs offered free meals to kids and families on Wednesdays in Grinnell area parks. The Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) food bank was also present to offer food items to take home. This expansion was prompted by the community’s emerging needs as Grinnell continues to recover from the pandemic and devastating derecho that hit the community in August 2020.

Substantial & Effective: How well did it work and at what scale?

The data speaks for the program's success. In addition to the attendance numbers cited above, summer collaborative programs have consistently demonstrated their effectiveness to collectively address the “summer slide.” Overall, for the summer of 2023, 87% of program participants improved or retained reading proficiency during the summer based on pre/post testing.

Sustainable: How likely is it to persist and grow?

The Grinnell summer learning program began in 2016 with two collaborative partners, Drake Community Library and GNCSD and quickly expanded to include the present total of five.

Over the years, the summer collaborative has adapted to emerging community needs and continued to strengthen and align programming between the organizations to better serve children and families.

The number of students participating in GEP summer reading programs continues to grow. In the summer of 2023, programs in the collaborative collectively counted 2,373 participants, growing from 1073 in the summer of 2021, more than doubling in the last two years.

Replicable: How easy is it for others to adopt/adapt?

Collective Impact initiatives typically have five conditions that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations. The collective impact framework provides the structure for our collaborative network. In fact, because of the demonstrated success of this framework for our collaborative, it has since been applied to other social impact projects in our community.

At the same time, successful community collaboration is built by establishing deep trust – which is fundamentally the key to success for Grinnell’s summer learning collaborative. Through trial and error, and a willingness to learn from and rely on each other, partners have been able to share their respective resources for the benefit of the kids and families they serve.

For more information about the Collective Impact Framework please visit:

Information about the Grinnell Education Partnership (GEP) can be found at


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