The Reinvention of Summer School

A new wave of free programs let lower-income students brush up on academics while having some summer fun.

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools' Summer Dreamers Academy program, students study math and reading, but also have opportunities to try out theater, kayaking, and other more traditional summer activities.
National Journal
May 27, 2015, 6:45 a.m.

School buses in Pitt­s­burgh don’t stop rolling in the sum­mer. From late June to early Au­gust, they trans­port chil­dren from all over the city to school build­ings trans­formed in­to quasi-sum­mer camps. In the morn­ing, kids study read­ing and math. In the af­ter­noon, they might go kayak­ing or swim­ming, try out fen­cing or pot­tery, vis­it a mu­seum or learn about loc­al ar­chi­tec­ture.

Urb­an school dis­tricts like Pitt­s­burgh Pub­lic Schools are hop­ing that fun, aca­dem­ic­ally rig­or­ous sum­mer pro­grams can nar­row the aca­dem­ic achieve­ment gap between af­flu­ent and low-in­come chil­dren. Now Pitt­s­burgh schools are par­ti­cip­at­ing in a found­a­tion-fun­ded study that will shed light on how well such pro­grams work.

Pitt­s­burgh school-dis­trict lead­ers cre­ated Sum­mer Dream­ers Academy after re­view­ing the re­search on sum­mer-learn­ing loss. By the end of the three-month sum­mer break, most kids have for­got­ten about a month’s worth of know­ledge from the pre­vi­ous school year, a 2011 re­port from the RAND Cor­por­a­tion found.

But while all chil­dren tend to lose math skills over long breaks, low-in­come kids tend to lose both math and read­ing skills. “Those losses are cu­mu­lat­ive,” says Sarah Pit­cock, chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer of the non­profit Na­tion­al Sum­mer Learn­ing As­so­ci­ation. One Bal­timore study found that sum­mer-learn­ing loss ac­coun­ted for most of the growth in the read­ing achieve­ment gap from first through fifth grade.

Pit­cock says there’s a com­mon-sense ex­plan­a­tion for the dis­par­ity. “High­er-in­come kids are go­ing to mu­seums, they’re go­ing to the lib­rary, they’re tak­ing trips, they’re in print-rich en­vir­on­ments, and they have age-ap­pro­pri­ate books in the home, but they don’t ne­ces­sar­ily prac­tice math over the sum­mer,” she says. Low-in­come chil­dren are less likely to get any kind of en­rich­ment.

Pitt­s­burgh Pub­lic Schools already offered a sum­mer-learn­ing pro­gram when it rolled out the Sum­mer Dream­ers Academy in 2010. But the ex­ist­ing pro­gram only served ele­ment­ary-school stu­dents and wasn’t well at­ten­ded or par­tic­u­larly in­nov­at­ive, says Christine Cray, pro­ject man­ager for Sum­mer Dream­ers.

The new pro­gram—which is vol­un­tary, and free to stu­dents—com­bines classroom in­struc­tion with activ­it­ies provided by com­munity groups and in­fuses fun throughout the day. The morn­ing might be­gin with a dance-off, and every school site has a theme; one of Cray’s fa­vor­ites was “Hol­ly­wood.”

Ini­tially, Sum­mer Dream­ers was fun­ded by fed­er­al stim­u­lus dol­lars and was open to only to stu­dents in the middle grades. Since 2012, it has been fun­ded by a mix of dis­trict and found­a­tion funds, and it has ex­pan­ded to serve stu­dents from kinder­garten through sev­enth grade. Cur­rently, the 27-day pro­gram serves some 1,800 stu­dents at a cost of roughly $1,200 per stu­dent. En­roll­ment pref­er­ence goes to stu­dents with low test scores and stu­dents from low-in­come fam­il­ies. Ap­prox­im­ately three-quar­ters of the campers each year are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an (the dis­trict’s over­all stu­dent pop­u­la­tion is just over half Afric­an-Amer­ic­an).

The same year the Sum­mer Dream­ers Academy opened, a Bo­ston non­profit called Bo­ston After School and Bey­ond launched a col­lec­tion of sum­mer pro­grams hos­ted by com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions across the city, from col­lege cam­puses to loc­al YM­CAs.

Like the Pitt­s­burgh pro­gram, the Bo­ston Sum­mer Learn­ing Pro­ject blends aca­dem­ics and fun activ­it­ies, is vol­un­tary, and is free to stu­dents. But it puts more em­phas­is on us­ing the city as a classroom. “What we’ve been fo­cused on is us­ing op­por­tun­it­ies out­side of schools to build these so-called non­cog­nit­ive skills”—like per­sever­ance and team work, says Chris Smith, pres­id­ent and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Bo­ston After School and Bey­ond. Right now, the Sum­mer Learn­ing Pro­ject re­lies on a mix of phil­an­throp­ic fund­ing and fin­an­cial sup­port from Bo­ston Pub­lic Schools, serves about 1,500 stu­dents dir­ectly (more stu­dents are served through a wider net­work of com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions), and costs about $1,500 per stu­dent.

Pro­grams like these can open up a space for edu­ca­tion in­nov­a­tion, en­cour­age teach­ers to cre­ate more en­ga­ging les­sons, and get com­munity groups more in­volved in help­ing chil­dren learn.

But they’re not easy to es­tab­lish or to main­tain. For one thing, high-qual­ity sum­mer ex­per­i­ences cost money. And most cit­ies don’t have a ded­ic­ated sum­mer-learn­ing in­fra­struc­ture—like an of­fice run by the school dis­trict. “The prob­lem is, it’s not some­body’s job,” Pit­cock says.

A stigma still sur­rounds tra­di­tion­al, re­medi­al sum­mer school, and some par­ents are re­luct­ant to sign their kids up for an aca­dem­ic pro­gram dur­ing what is primar­ily seen as a va­ca­tion for kids. “We even deal with it with our own staff and par­ents—’Sum­mer is a time for my kid to re­lax,’” says Cray. It’s cru­cial, she says, to cre­ate pro­grams that kids ac­tu­ally want to at­tend.

Par­ents and fun­ders might change their minds if re­search showed a clear be­ne­fit to sum­mer-learn­ing pro­grams. To that end, The Wal­lace Found­a­tion—a fun­der of the Bo­ston Sum­mer Learn­ing Pro­ject and the 2011 RAND study—is spon­sor­ing a ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­al of sum­mer-learn­ing pro­grams in five cit­ies, in­clud­ing Bo­ston and Pitt­s­burgh. Re­search­ers have already col­lec­ted data on some 5,600 chil­dren over two years, start­ing the sum­mer after third grade.

Early res­ults sug­gest that city pro­grams are help­ing kids build math skills but aren’t do­ing much to im­prove read­ing skills. Cray says the find­ing has pushed Sum­mer Dream­ers to take a closer look at its lit­er­acy pro­gram and make changes.

There may be lim­its to what a four- or five-week sum­mer in­ter­ven­tion can ac­com­plish. “Con­cen­trated poverty at the neigh­bor­hood level—those con­di­tions are ever-present in chil­dren’s lives,” says Karl Al­ex­an­der, a so­ci­ology pro­fess­or at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity. Help­ing low-in­come kids keep up with their more af­flu­ent peers re­quires sup­port every step of the way: dur­ing early child­hood, after school, and dur­ing the sum­mers.

But if sum­mer pro­grams aren’t a sil­ver-bul­let solu­tion, they’re still a piece of the puzzle. “It’s frankly what middle-class fam­il­ies do for their own kids,” Smith says. “That’s where we put our money, in the sum­mer time.”

Next Amer­ica’s Edu­ca­tion cov­er­age is made pos­sible in part by a grant from the New Ven­ture Fund.

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