By Deb Samuels
Once again the national conversation has turned to summer learning loss: the annual downward slide that occurs when students transition from the rhythm of the school day to less structured activities. Time and again, research has shown that without the review and reinforcement provided in the classroom, kids from all backgrounds can lose as much as two months’ worth of grade-level skills over summer vacation.
Significantly, during the school year all kids generally learn at the same rate – regardless of their economic standing. But that’s simply not true in the summer. For low-income kids, summer learning loss is greater and worsens from year to year. Why? The answer is simple: Access.
It takes a lot more than checking books off summer reading lists to keep kids challenged and engaged over the summer. A 2011 report by the RAND Corporation indicates that participating in summer programs can break the cycle of learning loss and help students make sustainable progress in school. Everything from camp experiences to organized sports can help minimize or even eliminate the learning gap – and help kids develop lifelong skills. Here’s the problem: Most of these enrichment opportunities come with a hefty price tag. As a result, the low-income kids who can’t afford them fall further behind, widening the achievement gap between high- and low-income youth even more.
While their more affluent counterparts may spend their summers traveling or honing skills at specialty camps, for low-income kids the end of the school year can also mean the end of having a library filled with books, free or discounted meals and a safe place to play outside with friends.
According to the Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap study, this yearly learning deficit can have an impact on at-risk youth that is real and long-lasting. To put it bluntly, missing out on summer learning experiences in elementary school can lead to not graduating from high school or going to college. And a report by The Pew Research Center confirms that a college degree leads to higher earnings, more stability and greater career satisfaction later in life.
So what can we do? We can start by providing low-income kids with access to programs that emphasize “life lessons.”
This year the 2015 Boston Summer Learning Community, a partnership between Boston Public Schools and Boston After School & Beyond, is coordinating programs at 40 organizations, including my own, at 75 locations serving more than 5,000 students. At a recent meeting of Boston Summer Learning Community members, Boston Chief of Education Rahn Dorsey commented on the power of summer learning programs to move from reading, writing and arithmetic to a new approach to the three R’s: “rigor, relevance and real-world experience.”
Giving low-income kids the chance to play kickball, cool off in a pool or weave lanyards is great, but these traditional activities are not enough to prepare them for success in school and in life. A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University confirms that the most effective summer learning programs are strategic and intentional. Successful programs emphasize the development of essential social, emotional, leadership, critical-thinking and communications skills – at every grade level – in a secure, supportive environment, a place with strong role models that kids can rely on. For many children, free and low-cost summer programs, like those we offer at Crossroads for Kids, provide the stability they need to keep pace in school, explore their interests and grow as individuals.
Because summer learning loss cuts across all demographics, educators, social service agencies and civic leaders must develop and support programs that build on lessons learned during the school year – for all students, not just some. For some kids, a trip across country, complete with stops at museums and historic sites and a good read, might do the trick. For others, programs that benefit the whole child – mentally, physically, intellectually and emotionally – can help prevent a minor downward slide from becoming an uphill battle.
Deb Samuels is president of Crossroads for Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides summer camp and year-round mentoring programs for at-risk kids.