Summer School keeps gap at bay

Low-income students especially lose ground

A couple hundred middle school students will set up their camcorders and interview state legislators at the Capitol tomorrow, asking about their fondest summer memories. The recordings will be uploaded to a website called “Summer Matters to You.” It’s not simply a higher tech version of “What I did on my Summer Vacation” – there’s a slight ulterior motive. The students are part of  National Summer Learning Day, and the recordings are also meant to promote summer school by showing the academic, cultural, and financial schism that separates kids when summer starts. Many public officials aren’t aware of it.

While middle-income kids may go to camp or on family vacations or even spend time over the summer reading, that’s not how it is for many low-income kids, said Jennifer Peck, executive director of the Oakland-based Partnership for Children and Youth, which is coordinating tomorrow’s program at the Capitol. They often have no structured time and almost never have the opportunity to apply the lessons of the school year at museums and national parks or through travel. So events are taking place around the country Tuesday to highlight a growing body of research pointing to summer as the time when the academic achievement gap grows wider and more formidable.

The Rand Corporation and The Wallace Foundation released the newest report last week  Making Summer Count: How summer programs can boost children’s learning.” Researchers Jennifer Sloan McCombs and Catherine Augustine analyzed studies and costs, and conducted phone interviews and site visits. What they found shouldn’t really be surprising, but it still shocks.

Summer losses compound

“By the end of summer, students perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring,” they wrote. “Of course, not all students experience ‘average’ losses. Summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students.”

But that’s not the worst of it, said Catherine Augustine when we spoke about the research. She said the most disturbing finding is that this learning loss is cumulative. “So each summer kids fall further and further behind.”

Their report calls out the work of Johns Hopkins sociology professor Karl Alexander, who describes the summer learning loss as a problem of  “monumental proportions.” His research shows that while low- and middle-income kids learn at about the same pace during the school year, they go in opposite directions over the summer.  He estimates that a full two-thirds of the achievement gap that appears in ninth grade can be attributed to summer learning loss.

“This is pretty definitive what’s going on here for kids, and summer needs to be front and center piece of the puzzle when we’re addressing the achievement gap,” said Jennifer Peck of Partnership for Children and Youth.

Low income students lose more knowledge than middle class peers over the summer (courtesy Partnership for Children and Youth, click to enlarge)

Low-income students lose more knowledge than middle-class peers over the summer (courtesy Partnership for Children and Youth; click to enlarge)

She emailed over a graph she described as the best illustration of what happens to kids during the summer, especially low-income kids. On it, the red line representing middle-income and higher-wealth students is making a steady increase, while the blue line below it, depicting low-income children, is zigging and zagging, but trending downward overall.

Summer school statistics hard to come by

The cultural and financial fissures that are less important during the school year become profound in the summer, when some kids go on family vacations to museums, historic sites, and parks, while others have very little scheduled time.

In 2008-09, the National Summer Learning Association commissioned a cursory scan of six California school districts to get a sense of what was happening with summer school.  Of the cities they looked at, said Peck, only 27 percent of the students were enrolled in some kind of summer learning program. “The majority were in what we call ‘self-care.’”

Statewide, nobody knows much about the prevalence of summer school or the quality. The California Department of Education has all sorts of data on the achievement gap. They know how students in every school in the state score on the California Standards Test.  They can compare those figures by race, gender, ethnicity, income, disabilities, and English language proficiency. Yet, no one collects information on how many districts run summer school or how many students attend.

The look of high quality

There may not be good figures, but everyone involved in the field believes the number of programs has been falling in recent years as schools use money that had been put into summer school to pay for basic necessities during the regular academic year.

The Packard Foundation stepped in to try to fill that vacuum. Packard is funding some California districts to improve their summer offerings. It tapped districts that were already running strong after-school programs, had a coordinator and some community partners in place, and were putting some of their supplemental instructional funds into summer programs.

They selected eight districts: Oakland, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Francisco, Sacramento, Gilroy, Whittier, and Fresno – a mix of urban and rural districts. Fresno was one of the first, and its program with Packard has been under way for three years. Alix Frazer, director of after-school programs with the Fresno County Office of Education, says they do pre- and post-summer-school tests and preliminary results show some gains. “We are getting indications that it is helping the kids as they return to school,” said Frazer.

What makes the Fresno program work is that it goes beyond the traditional summer school of three hours a day of math and English. It’s a full-day program with enrichment activities so the kids get some summertime. There’s a robotics program focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), and subjects such as sewing and designing clothes, fishing, canoeing, ropes courses, even college tours. Quite a bit of it is offered through collaboration with local community organizations.

The idea is to make the program enticing enough that students will want to spend six hours a day for five or six weeks of their summer in school. But districts shouldn’t go overboard on the sizzle.

Last summer in Baltimore, more than 16,500 middle school students willingly and enthusiastically showed up for summer school to work on math, a jump of several thousand more students from the previous summer. It wasn’t a love of variables that lured them away from riveting hours spent on video games, music, and hanging out; it was Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. The world record holder for gold medals, who runs a swim school in Baltimore, partnered with the city school district to provide swimming lessons for summer school students.

“It was mobbed,” said Augustine, “but they weren’t coming for the math.”

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1 Comment

  1. This happens to be my current area of employment — the San Francisco Summer Learning Network — and thank you for writing about it. I do want to point out that summer school isn’t strictly the focus. The concept that the National Summer Learning Association promotes is that the kinds of enrichments that more-privileged young people experience all summer continue to build their minds, enhancing and reinforcing what they learned during the school year — and this means the activities they pursue for fun, excitement and stimulation, not just sitting at a desk learning academic lessons.
    I coordinated a professional development day for 300 San Francisco summer youth program staff in May. Presentations covered topics such as building literacy into summer activities, “Finding Nature in Your Own Backyard,” incorporating math into sports activities, effective field trips, and lots of arts and creativity topics with intentional learning built in. Exhibitors included science programs, cooking and gardening projects, a UCSF-run kayaking program taking young people on urban outings on Mission Creek, and many more — all set up to work with full summer programs serving urban youth, as opposed to pricey camps in which an individual family would enroll a child.
    A popular program at one of the San Francisco summer sites funded by Packard has been a project in which students in grades 3-5 split into groups to explore and study a San Francisco neighborhood, researching the history, culture and current events in the neighborhood, and concluding by leading a hands-on activity for the full program that represents the neighborhood. The teacher who leads that program also shared his expertise with other summer program staff at the professional development day.
    The Summer Learning Network promotes the “Countdown for Summer”:
    5 days a week of active play.
    4 new places to visit.
    3 fresh fruits & veggies daily.
    2 summer projects.
    1 once a day with a good book.
    0 soda.


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