Steamboat Springs The white computer mouse dwarfed the small hand of 5-year-old Seth Niederhauser as he sat in front of a large computer screen Thursday afternoon at Soda Creek Elementary School.
The school year ended more than a month ago, but four times a week the doors to the school's computer lab and media center are open for students and parents eager to make learning a year-round process.
Six years after it began, more and more families are flocking to Soda Creek to take advantage of the free Summer ARC program.
The program, which is paid for by the city's half-cent sales tax, consists of two distinct reading tools: the Accelerated Reading Computer program and Lexia, a series of interactive reading software programs.
Niederhauser, who begins kindergarten next year, sat patiently and listened to an animated computer character pronounce word after word. He dragged the mouse arrow over a picture corresponding to each word, and one by one his correct answers revealed a large picture initially shrouded by animated padlocks.
"It's fun," Niederhauser said succinctly of the computer program as he raced to a "treasure box," from which he secured a small toy.
Seth's mom, Robin Niederhauser, said the program is not only fun but motivating, particularly during a time of year when many children lack motivation.
"I think it's great," she said. "It keeps them going during the summer. It keeps them learning things throughout the summer so they'll be ready when school starts."
And that's the whole point, said Soda Creek reading teacher Ilene Stevenson. She and Soda Creek's Sue Barnes make up the summer reading program's two-teacher staff.
"It's extremely important for kids to keep reading during the summer," Stevenson said. "Research says if you don't read during the summer you will lose skills."
Under the Accelerated Reading Computer program, children can choose from about 5,000 Soda Creek Library books for which the school's Parent Information Committee has purchased corresponding comprehension quizzes. A child chooses a book, takes it home to read and returns to the library to return the book and log onto a computer for a short quiz about the book's content.
Three Lexia software programs offer interactive reading exercises for a variety of ages and reading levels.
"It's totally individualized, and the programs are sequential," Stevenson said. "We can use it with remedial, intermediate and advanced readers. It's made a huge impact with reading skills."
Lexia's Early Reading program, with which Seth Niederhauser worked last week, is designed for 4- to 6-year-olds. Two different comprehension levels within the Early Reading program provide entertaining activities such as practice with rhyming, initial and final consonant sounds, word segmenting, sound blending and general alphabet knowledge.
The Phonics Based Reading program, or PBR as it's referred to at Soda Creek, employs exercises in sound-symbol correspondence, word attack skills and early comprehension skills, not to mention introducing children to nearly 2,000 vocabulary words, according to Lexia's Web site. PBR is generally for children ages 5 to 8.
Finally, Lexia's Reading S.O.S. -- Strategies for Older Students -- program introduces challenging concepts to slightly older students. Students must show competency within each activity before the program allows them to move on to more advanced levels, thereby eliminating successful advancement through guesswork, Stevenson said.
"Kids really have to master the skills," she said. "They can't guess and move on."
Soda Creek's summer reading program is a hit with students and parents alike. Planned attendance jumped nearly 100 students this summer, from 150 last year to 250.
"The word has spread," Stevenson said.
But families with summer vacation plans or busy schedules need not worry. The program is free, and attendance is optional. Families can choose to attend weekday morning or afternoon sessions, however the program best fits into their summer schedules. Parents are welcome to stay and work with or watch their children use the reading programs.
"It's a real family-oriented thing," Stevenson said. "We have dads that come in and work with their kids on the computers."
Coleman Holloway, 10, had just returned from a tiring day of water skiing, which followed a sleepover with buddies on the family trampoline, when he dropped into Soda Creek's media center with his mother, Deb, to partake in some reading skills work.
"I'm trying to make it past level three," Holloway said of Lexia's Reading S.O.S. program. "I like improving my skills."
And his skills certainly are improving, Deb Holloway and Stevenson agree.
"He's reading so much better because of (the program)," Deb Holloway said. "It takes the stress out of making them do it at home. It just provides great structure and a quiet environment."
The summer reading program is open to all Steamboat students, regardless of which public or private school they attend. Stop by Soda Creek's computer lab and media center, to the right of the school's main entrance, during any one of the four weekly sessions to sign up or for more information. The program ends Aug. 7.