Frostburg State’s University PALS: A Summer Camp Where Booklovers Are Born

Jul 5, 2017 10:00 AM

Parents, beware the treacherous summer slide!

Not sunbaked playground equipment – this slide sees children lose reading skills over summer vacation. Most common in children from low-income families, summer slides add up each year. By middle school, mounting skill losses can become a two-year reading skills gap.

Statistically speaking, however, children who read four or more books for pleasure during summer can avoid the slide, regardless of family finances. University Promoting Awareness of Literacy Skills (U-PALS), a Frostburg State University program held at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, has leveraged that fact to eliminate the summer slide for low-income K-5 students in Washington County.

Forget lengthy classroom lessons. Forget formal tests. U-PALS makes reading fun – a summer camp where booklovers are born.

Program founder Dr. Kristine McGee, assistant professor of Education Professions at Frostburg, taught in Washington County Public Schools for 22 years. She envisioned the U-PALS concept there while teaching summer school.

“Students are in school all year round, and they answer to the demands of what teachers need to do for the school,” said McGee. “If I’m going to continue working with a student in the summer, I want to flip the tables and really make this focused on their needs.”

U-PALS introduces fun themes each week, such as farms, space, oceans and even pirates. Students interact with lessons, make arts and crafts, hear from special musical guests and readers, take field trips and even spread towels on USMH’s lawns for “reading on the beach.”

For children, U-PALS feels like playtime, but the impact of that play is clear. WCPS data showed that U-PALS students maintained or even advanced reading levels by fall.

“Reading and playing with a purpose really helps them hold onto their lessons better,” McGee explained.

Remarkably, she started U-PALS in 2013 with her wits alone.

“Public school teachers can launch rockets with nothing, and that’s exactly what I did,” McGee said. “So the first two semesters, I ran the program completely unfunded.”

In 2013 and 2014, volunteers from FSU’s undergraduate and graduate teaching programs taught for the experience. WCPS’s Summer Food Service Program provided free breakfast and lunch for each student.

As word spread in Hagerstown, McGee heard of potential supporters. She connected with the Alice Virginia and David W. Fletcher Foundation, and their funding enabled McGee to pay U-PALS teachers and increase enrollment. In 2014, McGee turned to the FSU President’s Experiential Learning Enhancement Fund for additional funding and has received support each year since. She secured Opportunity Grants from the FSU Foundation in 2014 and 2016. In 2016, U-PALS also partnered with Washington County’s Judy Center.

All that support gave U-PALS a boost. McGee started with seven students in 2013 and about 15 regular attendees in 2014. For 2015, U-PALS expanded to serve 25 children with six paid pre-service teachers. The program met two days each week for three hours per day.

Last summer, the program served 57 students, expanded to four days per week and brought in a guest children’s book author. For 2017, U-PALS already has a full roster of 70 students and a busy schedule planned.

McGee works with WCPS to integrate lessons from U-PALS into year-round coursework. Participants also receive free one-on-one tutoring throughout the school year from an FSU pre-service teacher. Those pre-service teachers also benefitted from the experience. In 2015 and 2016, every one found work as an educator.

“This is about as experiential as you can get,” McGee said with a smile.

For the children in U-PALS, the impact is even more profound. McGee related an anecdote from the mother of a 7-year-old student.

“Mom told him, ‘You’ve got football this summer!’ The kid looked up at her and said, ‘Mom, you know I go to college in the summer!’ Everyone talks about making our kids college- and career-ready, but having this program on the college campus ... well, that’s just it right there.”

The FSU Foundation has established a fund to support U-PALS. McGee thanked Hagerstown’s Bella Salon for making the first gift. To support U-PALS, visit or call 301-687-4161.

To learn more about U-PALS or to enroll your child for 2018, contact McGee by April 2018 at

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit or Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.

FSU is committed to making all of its programs, services and activities accessible to persons with disabilities. To request accommodations through the ADA Compliance Office, call 301-687-4102 or use a Voice Relay Operator at 1-800-735-2258.