George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As we head into summer vacation and schools are shuttering their doors for three months, we should be rethinking how summer can become the "third semester" for 21st Century learning. At a conference in Washington last week, a colleague was surprised to hear that the long summer break dates back to our agrarian society and the need for young folk to help their families bring in the crops. Today, the vast majority of students don't bring in crops but need to be harvesting knowledge year-round.

As we head into summer vacation and schools are shuttering their doors for three months, we should be rethinking how summer can become the "third semester" for 21st Century learning. At a conference in Washington last week, a colleague was surprised to hear that the long summer break dates back to our agrarian society and the need for young folk to help their families bring in the crops. Today, the vast majority of students don't bring in crops but need to be harvesting knowledge year-round. And, come to think of it, some experiences in nature and growing fruits and vegetables would help.

The "summer slide" for children is well documented. Children from all backgrounds lose math skills over the summer; in reading, children from low-income backgrounds fall further behind their more affluent peers. Often, the first weeks of the new school year are spent remediating what's been forgotten. By the "third semester," I don't mean more of the same traditional schooling and seat-based exercises that many students are subjected to. Not more remedial reading for students who are behind in reading. To paraphrase my colleague Dr. Milt Goldberg, a formerly a senior official at the U. S. Department of Education, a lousy 12-month school year is worse than a lousy 9-month school year. I mean a chance to do more engaged and motivating learning, supported by technology and mentors from schools and the community.

In recent years, one of the most exciting developments in American education has been the growth of these types of summer learning programs. Organized by partnerships between school districts, nonprofit organizations, universities, and others, they provide a more diverse group of students with the enriching science, art, and community-based activities that middle- and upper-income parents can provide by paying for fee-based summer sessions. Summer camp, I'd argue, plays a more important role in children's learning than most educators acknowledge, a chance to get outdoors, learn new hobbies, and form new friendships.

National Summer Learning Association

The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), a nonprofit chartered in 2009, sits at the center of this movement to capture more learning time during summertime. It began as the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in 2001, evolving out of a summer tutoring program called Teach Baltimore. NSLA provides strategic planning support to the fast-growing number of districts, states, universities, and non-profits utilizing the summer months. Its website provides a wealth of resources, including research on the importance of summer, advice on how to get started, and descriptions of model programs. It includes a series of downloadable slide presentations to make the case at faculty, parent, and school board meetings. June 21 has been declared Summer Learning Day and the NSLA site includes many ideas for how summer programs can celebrate their work with their larger communities.

Since 2005, NSLA has honored the best programs with its Excellence in Summer Learning Awards. Many of them have found ways to connect their summer programs with the school year. One example is Summer Scholars in Denver, a year-round program partnering with up to twenty Denver elementary schools serving about 1,750 youth from low-income backgrounds each year. The summer program runs for seven-and-a half hours on weekdays for six weeks. A morning literacy class includes two teachers, a paraprofessional, parent volunteers, and a class assistant, with special support for English language learners. Afternoon activities range from nature and museum visits to bowling, ice skating, swimming, and music lessons, with support from a key partner, Denver Parks and Recreation. According to one study, 78 percent of second-grade Summer Scholars and 82 percent of third-graders improved on the Developmental Reading Assessment.

Aim High

Another is Aim High in my city of San Francisco, a unique partnership between independent and public schools which historically have had little to do with each other. But some leaders of independent schools have seen a higher purpose to their missions. Aim High was incubated at Lick-Wilmerding High School, led for twenty-three years by a visionary head of school, Al Adams. It began as an unusual partnership between Lick-Wilmerding and the San Francisco public schools. Independent schools often have excellent facilities, such as labs, computers, sports fields, and theaters that public schools lack due to underinvestment, and strong faculty interested in teaching a more diverse group of students. I got to know the Aim High program during the years my daughter, Maggie, attended Lick-Wilmerding. She served as one of its teaching assistants last summer.

Adams and a teacher leader, Alec Lee, now Aim High director, felt that public middle school students could benefit from a summer program on their campus and that their high school students could receive valuable experience teaching and mentoring younger students. Lick-Wilmerding is one of the founding members of a coalition, Private Schools with a Public Purpose (PSPP), whose members include Head Royce in Oakland, the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, and Punahou School in Honolulu, now even better known for its presidential alum.

Starting with fifty students and twelve teachers at one site, Aim High has grown to eleven sites, more than 1,000 students, and 300 teachers. It provides an opportunity for high school and college students to gain exposure to teaching as a career, a ''teaching laboratory'' within a progressive school environment that includes the core subjects of mathematics, science, humanities. The program includes time to explore personal and social issues and afternoon activities that include excursions to museums, sports events, and cultural festivities. Ninth-graders spend a week in a residential environmental education program in a nearby national park site.

Summer Learning: An Inflection Point

Exemplary summer programs like these reach students from low-income backgrounds and are provided at no cost or low cost to students and their families. They also recognize that one summer isn't enough and often require that students and families make a multiyear commitment.

Ron Fairchild, NSLA's executive director told me, "The field of summer learning is at a great inflection point. We have a body of best practices and programs that work. It's incumbent that we use it to leverage increased public investment. It's an agenda that schools and nonprofits can embrace."

In my next blog, I'll say more about the PUEO program at Punahou, named after the Hawaiian word for owl. I've written about summer learning previously for Edutopia: Go Year-Round: A Push for True Summer School, and Back to School: A Time to Rethink Time.

In my book coming out in July, Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools (Jossey-Bass), I connect summer opportunities with how new approaches to "learning time and places" form an important new edge of innovation for schools. I'm glad the book is making it onto some of my colleagues' summer reading lists. It can be ordered at Amazon here.


Editor's Note: Did you miss our webinar with Milton Chen? Click here for the archive video, and to get the full list of resources that were mentioned during the show.

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Indo US Summit's picture

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Jana Williams's picture

One of the ways to keep up the interest year-round in the classroom is for teachers to introduce new methods of teaching old subjects.

As a filmmaker, teacher & writer I created a primer, FILMMAKING WIZARDRY ( )in an attempt to aid teachers looking for new ways to learn, themselves, and bring that enthusiasm back to class.

Happy learning!


Richard Kassissieh's picture
Richard Kassissieh
Director of Information Technology at Catlin Gabel School

I'm enjoying exploring your blog posts and came across this reference to summer vacation. You may enjoy reading these two accounts of how summer vacation is not a product of the agrarian timetable. If it were, vacation would have happened during spring planting and the fall harvest.

Patricia DeCicco's picture

I strongly believe that kids benefit from down time in the summer, or at various times of year. During this time thye can play, exercise, be creative and enjoy family time. I think it would be detrimental and unfair to take thi important quality time away from children and their families.

S.Brown's picture

I have always been a firm believer that school never stops and learning during the summer reflects that. Students who are active during the summer not only go back to school with a renewd sense of learning but have an easier time adjusting to the beginning of the school year. Summer school should be beyond remediation. If a student struggled or failed to do work during the year, we do them a disservice by cramming September to June into 3 weeks. That is not education.

LaurenS's picture

As a special education teacher, I often find my students regress so much over the summer and yet do not qualify for our extended school year program. A year round program would benefit them so much.
I know that many districts practice this already. I taught on Oahu for a year and their school year ran from July-July with frequent breaks throughout the year. I noticed less regression with the students and an increase of energy with the staff.
I think under the right conditions schooling year round would be beneficial.

S. Onken's picture

Teaching in a smaller town, I wonder how feasible a summer program like those discussed in this post would be. I think it would be an interesting thing to see how many of the neighboring school districts would be willing to possibly work together on such a program.

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