Meet the 22-Year-Old Who Is Closing the Summer Achievement Gap

Karim Abouelnaga, the founder of Practice Makes Perfect, explains how he became obsessed with the knowledge kids lose during long vacations.

Karim Abouelnaga, 22, is the founder and CEO of Practice Makes Perfect, a New York City-based nonprofit that partners with communities to create high-quality summer opportunities for inner-city kids and young adults.
National Journal
Terrance Ross, The Atlantic
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Terrance Ross, The Atlantic
July 31, 2014, 9:21 a.m.

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.

“¦ hate.

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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