Educators hope summer learning can narrow achievement gapby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — By this point during their long summer vacation, many children have forgotten some of what they learned during the school year.
That might seem harmless, but educators say it's a serious problem, especially for low-income students. That's because they lose more academic skills over the summer than their more affluent peers.
But there's growing evidence that summer learning programs might help many students. A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that students who attend summer programs do better academically than students who do not.
The potential for such learning prompts many Minnesota parents to send their children to summer learning program. Among them are dozen five-, six- and seven-year olds who attend the East Side Children's summer program in St. Paul.
As the children crowded around teacher Abby Foss in the basement of the Arlington Hills Presbyterian Church, she showed them how to turn an upside-down paper bowl into a turtle, with the help of a little construction paper and plenty of glue, "just to make sure it has extra stickiness."
The exercise was more than just a cute arts project. It's part of the focus on science at East Side Children's program.
"We're studying aquatic biome and we're talking about fresh water animals," Foss said. There are 70 students enrolled in the free program, supported by grants from private foundations and the Minnesota Department of Education.
The students range from incoming kindergartners to incoming high school seniors. Most come from low-income families and nearly all are students of color.
They are exactly the type of students education experts say benefit the most from summer learning programs.
Researchers say most students lose a month or two of math skills over the summer. But children from low-income families also lose an additional two-to-three months of reading skills. One theory is those students aren't encouraged to read as much as their wealthier peers, and don't take summer trips to libraries and museums.
The East Side program isn't a typical day camp. Each day is laid out like a traditional, albeit truncated, school day.
That helps students get back into an academic groove during the summer, said Lynn Pham, the summer program's director. When school starts in a little over a month, they'll be ready to go.
"So that way they've already set the routine of waking up, being prepared and getting ready to learn," Pham said.
While students do play outside and go on field trips, they also engage in academic pursuits, like math and science classes. They're often reading. The program aims to help students retain what they've learned during the school year.
Across the country educators and researchers are touting the power of summer programs as a way to stop that summer academic slide.
"This is really about advancing students and mitigating against the significant losses that are taking place in the summer and in fact taking advantage of the extra time to advance students to higher goals," said Gary Huggins, CEO of the Baltimore-based National Summer Learning Association.
The Bemidji school district also offers low-income and minority students summer academic and enrichment opportunities.
More than half of the 55 students are Native American and many come from low-income families, said John Buckanaga, who runs a six-week summer learning program for the district.
"I have a lot of kids that have one strike against them," Buckanaga said. "I hope to level out the playing field for them."
The Bemidji program, in its third year, is sponsored by a five-year grant from the federal government.
Buckanaga said testing data shows most students in the program maintain their math and reading skills over the summer, and some even improve slightly.
"The statistics show without summer programs a lot of kids who are having difficulty in school would definitely lose a lot of ground, lose more ground," he said. "Year after year after year, that small amount of ground they're losing gets bigger and bigger."
The National Summer Learning Association estimates that 14 million students take part in summer programs, and there's a need to enroll some 40 million more.
But at a time when schools are struggling with their budgets, the cost of the programs is an issue. The Rand Corporation study found high quality summer learning programs can cost as much as $3,000 per student. That's a cost that summer learning advocates say should be shared among school districts, governments and community partners.
- Morning Edition, 07/26/2012, 7:45 a.m.