First, second, and third graders in Woodbury won't have much of a summer break this year if their parents enroll them in an unusual voluntary reading program to be held from July 6 through Aug. 27.

But they will avoid what teachers call the "summer slide" - when children tend to lose skills and knowledge during the long vacation.

"We recognize our kids go backward in the summer when they don't receive instruction," said Jason Vivadelli, principal of Evergreen Avenue Elementary School, who is the curriculum supervisor for each of the district's three elementary schools. "We wanted a resource to combat" the slide, he said.

Other New Jersey school districts offer summer programs for different age groups, but "we're not aware of any targeting this young age group," he said.

The free program, called the "Summer Safari Reading Camp," will run from Monday through Thursday at West End Memorial Elementary School, 215 Queen St.

Two sessions - from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. - will be offered each day. Students can attend one or both sessions over the summer, providing year-round instruction, Vivadelli said.

Bus transportation will be available from Walnut Street Elementary, Evergreen Avenue Elementary, and area child-care centers, officials said. Free lunches will be provided through a partnership between Woodbury schools and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, officials said.

"Students are not required" to take part in the reading program, Vivadelli said. "But we hope to convince parents this is a good thing to do."

The district is hoping to see most - if not all - of the more than 300 first, second, and third graders signed up for the camp, the principal said. The school system has 1,500 students in pre-K through grade 12.

"This is a reading program; it's not math," Vivadelli said. "Our number-one job is to teach kids to read and read well."

Twenty teachers and other support staff will run the program, which has received federal funding. "It's not cheap," said the principal, who did not divulge the costs.

Summer Safari Reading Camp will offer "academic instruction along with fun, hands-on activities," said a statement Monday from the school district, which is working with area organizations, such as the Woodbury Library and Woodbury Child Development Center, "to ensure that the new summer program will be successful for students."

The children will be provided with library cards and will receive some free books, Vivadelli said.

Educators estimate that students returning to school in September "typically perform, on average, one to two months behind where they were in June, with this loss being cumulative," the statement said. "Over time, this can lead to students' having achievement gaps and struggling to maintain their grades."

The year-round classes "will reduce the amount of reteaching necessary in the fall and will increase educational efficiency," the district said.

The students attending the summer program will be assigned to multiage classrooms with others who have similar reading skills.

"They will be grouped according to their reading level," Vivadelli said. "There are no grades. We're being as flexible as possible."

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