For the past four summers, Karim Abouelnaga has been focused on one thing: stopping the loss of academic skills and knowledge that occurs during the summer months. Known in academic circles as “the summer achievement gap,” it affects elementary- and middle-school students in general, but low-income and minority students are especially at risk. By the fall, as Abouelnaga has learned, students can be as many as five months behind their peers if they haven’t been engaged during the summer: They not only fall behind during the vacation itself; they also spend the first couple of months of the new school year attempting to close the gap. Some of them never do.
Abouelnaga, 22, initially came across the problem while working on a class project at Cornell three years ago. His discovery of the issues eventually led him to cofound the renowned education program, Practice Makes Perfect.
The core tenet of the program (which runs from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.) is that students teach each other. Abouelnaga noticed early on that younger children are more receptive to teachers from their own neighborhoods or backgrounds. At PMP, it’s common to see a 10th grader teaching a fifth grader at his program. Abouelnaga has seen resounding success as a result; in 2013, the program earned special recognition at the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference.
This summer marks a crucial turning point for PMP. As the program continues to grow, Abouelnaga has changed the business model from fully philanthropic to a more sustainable fee-for-service approach. He’s hoping this will allow PMP to expand and reach areas where its services are most needed. He just oversaw the July 27 triathlon, a fundraiser that began on a whim and has now ballooned into a massive annual event. Abouelnaga recently spoke to The Atlantic about Practice Makes Perfect’s growth and the state of education in America.
This is the fourth summer for PMP. How has the program changed over the years?
It is too surreal. I still feel like it was just yesterday when I picked up the report on the achievement gap in college. When we originally started working on PMP, we were thinking of national expansion — almost too early. We quickly learned how difficult it is to do our work and are still working to set reasonable expectations of growth.
This summer we made changes to our business model. Now we have a more sustainable fee-for-service model that works more closely with individual schools to share data and drive longer-term change. We also had the most selective college-internship process, accepting about 5 percent of the college students who applied to teach in our classrooms. For the first time, we partnered with a charter network, Friendship Charter Schools in D.C., to bring our first pilot program out there, and we piloted a program with an independent charter school in New York City.
This summer, we are also working a lot more closely with the New York City Department of Education to support the work we are carrying out in East New York, Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Queens — two of the most struggling neighborhoods in New York City.
What do you see as the program’s greatest accomplishment?
This year, our first group of mentors applied to college, and there were 22 of them. Collectively, they got into 120+ universities across the United States, including Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, and NYU. Their college acceptances to some of the most competitive and resource-rich institutions is tangible validation of the impact we are having.
What has been the greatest challenge?
I am 22 years old. As obvious as it may sound, I still have a lot of learning to do. There is a long road of personal and professional development that I still have to travel down.
What have you learned about the summer achievement gap since you first read that report back at Cornell?
When I started PMP, I thought the summer learning loss was limited to the 3.5-month loss over the summer. I have since learned that teachers spend another 1.5 months teaching old material and reviewing content at the beginning of every year. Thus, the aggregate losses are closer to five months, or half a school year.
I want to ask you a series of rapid-fire questions. Tell me something about education that you like.
Elite universities are doing a great job at making their educations accessible to the lowest financial quartile of students.
We are not doing enough to maximize our children’s time over the summer. There are innovative programs and organizations that are springing about, but funding is scarce.
“¦ want to change.
Legislation around summer funding. I’d like every school to one day have an allocation for summer education. This is currently not the case.
Any general observations about the state of American education today?
Educational equity is one of the biggest civil-rights movements of our time. [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan recently made a proposal for a full [calendar-]year school year. I am in absolute support of the idea of structured learning opportunities over the summer for low-income students.
Where will PMP be in 10 years?
My goal is to have PMP become a national summer-school replacement model. The summer slide is a huge problem, but I also feel like the summer is a huge opportunity that is currently being wasted. In so many cases, our kids are left to get in trouble and are not under adult supervision. The benefit that PMP is creating for every stakeholder, from the student to the teacher, is something I am the most eager to see scale.
The vision is that one day students in low-income neighborhoods will end school, take two weeks off, attend a PMP summer program for six weeks, take another two weeks off, and then return to school for the following year. This would happen as early as kindergarten so we can change the current cultural norm around attending summer school.
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