For a long time, the issue of summer learning has waited in the wings, like a fully prepared
understudy, ready to jump in and take the stage should the star need a back-up. Recently, though,
summer learning has moved into the spotlight — and at the same time, the script is changing.
Instead of memorizing and mimicking the star’s lines, summer learning is writing its own script.
Transcending the punitive and remedial model of summer school, summer learning’s new form is
an artful blend of core academic learning, hands-on activities, 21st Century skills, arts, sports and
Why the new vision?
Put simply, kids need it. Without ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential skills, kids
fall behind on measures of academic achievement over the summer months. Research dating
back 100 years confirms the phenomenon often referred to as “summer slide.”1 Most youth lose
about two months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer
months. More importantly, however, low-income youth also lose more than two months in reading
achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.2 This disparity has
grave consequences for disadvantaged young people. Differences in a child’s summer learning
experiences during his or her elementary school years can impact whether that child ultimately
earns a high school diploma and continues on to college.3
Schools have additional reasons to adopt the new vision for
summer learning. Contending with ever-higher benchmarks and
bleak international comparisons, schools need creative solutions
to narrowing the achievement gap. Summer presents an untapped
opportunity — a time of year when youth and families seek programs
that look and feel different from the traditional school year; and
community partners with specialized expertise in arts, recreation,
sports and youth development abound
district administrators nationwide are cutting summer school programs due to budget shortfalls, with some using the last of their stimulus money to retain teaching positions, other districts are prioritizing these programs. They know that, particularly for high poverty students, cutting programming means learning setbacks and a precarious time with few opportunities for physical activity, academic and cultural enrichment, creative exploration, or in some cases, proper nutrition.
"A lot of the reason districts are cutting summer programs has to do with leadership issues," says Jeff Smink, vice president of policy for the National Summer Learning Association, a national organization that provides resources, guidance and expertise to the summer learning community. "It's unfortunate that more administrators are not strategic about Title I dollars and other public, private and community funding allowing them to be more committed to summer programs."
Ron Fairchild, CEO of the same group, says that "by rethinking summer school, those same districts can use summer programming as a path to close the achievement gap, pilot innovative education reform strategies, and offer enrichment opportunities for students who need it most.The National Summer Learning Association works with thousands of districts to move away from the association of summer school with not doing well academically, and toward a new vision of summer school that promotes comprehensive learning programs blending academic lessons and enrichment activities. With support from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the association has launched a three-year campaign to increase public investment in summer programs by $50 million. It is already halfway toward its goal.
The association began as the National Center for Summer Learning at John Hopkins University. Research such as a 2007 Johns Hopkins study had found two-thirds of the achievement gap in reading between poor and more advantaged ninth-graders was due to unequal summer learning experiences during the elementary school years, so the need for a national organization devoted to making summer learning available to all children was recognized.
Summer school conjures up many images, few of them positive. Often remedial in nature, it is typically seen as punishment for poor performance, and a less-than-ideal way to spend the summer for both students and their teachers. No wonder dozens of districts across the country, and several states, are taking an ax to their summer school programs this budget season, as they struggle to deal with crippling deficits and pressing mandates. Summer school is too often seen as an easy cut.
But by re-envisioning this maligned institution, those same districts could make summer school an investment in improved student achievement later on—a way to extend learning, provide effective intervention, and offer enrichment opportunities, particularly for those students who have few other good options during those months out of school.
Imagine, for example, a summer school program that would provide accelerated and engaging instruction in the morning, fresh local food for breakfast and lunch, and afternoon enrichment activities in which students could choose to canoe down the Mississippi River, create their own video games, or display self-made projects in local museums.
This vision for summer school represents a sharp departure from the past and is already a reality in several forward-looking school districts nationwide. While it may seem an unlikely source, this kind of summer learning program could be just the type of change—what the Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen might describe as “disruptive innovation”—needed to fuel successful school-year reform.
"The literature is clear and compelling on the fact that summer is a season of huge risks and setbacks for low-income youths."
In many ways, the summer months are the last frontier of school reform.
Students who chronically underperform when compared to their better-resourced peers will have an even steeper road ahead as theymaster new standards. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)’s annual testrevealspersistent achievement gaps between white and African-American students across the country, which are further compounded in high-poverty communities.To surmount this challenge, expanded learning programs like HA offer significantly more instructional time through close partnerships with schools. Significant changes in the structure of learning are required to support
these students throughout new standards implementation. HA offers a proven solution The HA year-round, multi-year program model, determinedHighly Effective Without Reservations according to the US Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouseis comprised of 650 annual hours of standards-aligned academic enrichmentand serves high-needmiddle school students. In thesix-week Summer Academy, experienced teachersdeliver small classroom instruction for 40 hours per week inmath, science, social studies, and literature. Students experiencea dailyelectiveclass, weekly field trips,and an overnight college trip.Afterschool Academyoperates for 25 weeks, and students receive homework help, dinner, an elective, and intensive tutoringin math, literature, and seminars. Students attend the program three days per weekuntil8:00 p.m., and partner with a well-trained volunteer tutoreach night.Currently, 85% of studentsare eligible for Free and Reduced Meals (FARM); in some sites, as many as 98% of studentsare FARM-eligible.Additionally, 80% of students are African-American and 10% Latino.HA is open to all students in accordance with Section 427of GEPA. Sample studentprofiles and daily program schedules are in Appendix J