Summer learning loss is a well-documented phenomenon, with students losing between one and two months' worth of academic knowledge each summer. And low-income students suffer a steeper rate of loss than their peers - half of the achievement gap seen in reading can be attributed to summer loss. (There is one area in which students get ahead during the summer: They gain weight two or three times faster during the summer months than during the school year.)
Across the nation, schools, districts and states are trying to address the challenges posed by summer vacation. One seemingly obvious solution is a move to year-round schooling. Some communities are attempting it, but there are a number of reasons (public opinion and budget among them) that many others are avoiding it.
Another seemingly obvious solution: Summer school. Research compiled by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) shows that nearly 75 percent of public schools offer academic assistance during the summer, mainly for remedial purposes. But participation in these programs is only six to 30 percent of district enrollment, and some evidence suggests that is because parents do not want their children in summer programs that mimic instruction during the school year, preferring programs that offer a broader range of activities.
Summer school is also facing enormous financial challenges. A recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators on the economic impact of the recession on schools shows that 22.3 percent of respondents (school administrators) eliminated summer school programs in 2011?12, and 29 percent are considering it for 2012?13. In addition, 28.8 percent of respondents eliminated extracurricular activities in 2010?11, with 40.7 percent considering it for 2012?13, suggesting that most districts won't be broadening the activity base of their summer programs any time soon.
Until more resources are available, schools and districts alone are never going to be able to adequately address summer learning loss.
What Individuals Can Do
Individuals can certainly do their part. Teachers can pass out summer reading lists (such lists are available online for students of all ages, as well as targeted towards specific audiences like teens) and send out journaling assignments. And parents play a key role in keeping their children learning over the summer. The National PTA offers suggestions for summer activities that encourage learning, such as setting up a nature scavenger hunt and touring local manufacturing plants, as well as prompts to help children keep a summer journal and resources to help them eat healthy and keep active.
What Communities Can Do
To more systemically address the issue of summer learning loss, it needs to be recognized by the community as a problem that they need to work with the schools to solve. In both a recent RAND report examining how to make the most out of summer and a NASBE discussion guide presenting a new vision for supporting students in summer learning, a key idea emerged: The role of community partnerships.
Children are always somewhere during the summer -- day care, day camp, overnight camp, or elsewhere. By partnering with the institutions already serving students during the summer and aligning their programming with academic goals, schools and districts can have a big impact on summer learning loss without the costs associated with running their own programs.
At the Coalition for Community Schools' 2012 National Forum, I learned of one such partnership. The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati has long offered summer camps and childcare. But in recent years, they realized they could do more to help participants develop and strengthen academic and wellness skills. They have since transformed their summer program, combining camp traditions with academically aligned curricula to create engaging, learning-intensive summer programs.
In doing so, they partnered with the Cincinnati Public Schools, a local children's hospital and others to help develop a strategy that supports school goals. Last year, in addition to swimming and other common camp activities, their program included:
- DEAR: Drop Everything And Read -- a simple, low-to-no-cost program that involved students keeping a book with them at all times and, no matter where they were (the cafeteria, the volleyball court, and so on), when it was time, stopping what they were doing to read
- Curricular activities -- a combination of free tools (including those available from CincyAfterSchools that align with the district's academic plan) and purchased curriculum
- "Let's Move It!" -- a pilot program in which students tracked their water consumption, recorded their daily physical activity, participated in taste tests (ultimately exposing them to more than 52 fruits and vegetables), and learned how to make healthy choices about food
- Other health and wellness supports -- active games, physical fitness, a no smoking campaign, and nutrition activities
While these specific activities won't work for every summer camp or child care situation, the broader notion -- that community organizations have a role to play in addressing summer learning loss -- is important to consider. Schools can't do it alone.