Summertime Doesn’t Need to be a Vacation from Learning

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Tapping my mechanical pencil on my desk, I could feel the excitement coursing through my veins. Summer vacation started in four minutes and I could barely keep from jumping out of my chair and sprinting down the hall towards the bus lane. My classmates and I knew what awaited us on the other end of those four minutes – long days playing in the sun, ice cream trucks, and NO SCHOOL for three whole months.

Summer enrichment activity at the Erechtheion at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
Summer enrichment activity at the Erechtheion at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

Though I wouldn’t be in school, I would still be learning. That summer, the one before fourth grade, my mother decided that I would attend a summer enrichment program called S.I.S.T.E.R.S. on Our Shoulders.

My mother knew that I needed to continue my education in the summer months in order to maintain and retain the skills and knowledge I had learned during the school year. She also didn’t trust leaving me alone in the house the entire day while she had to work. But like many families, our monthly income barely covered our bills, so going to summer camp or taking a family trip like many of my more well-off classmates was not an option.  However, my mother was determined not to embody a situation Professor Joel M. Charon cites in his textbook Social Problems: Readings with Four Questions “where parents’ lack of money and time hinders the ability to invest in [their] children’s education.” As a result, she made sacrifices so I could have an engaging and enriching summer experience.

The Problem with Summer School

Like my mother, parents and city leaders know the importance of summer learning activities, but many recognize the disadvantages of traditional summer school programming. As a result, many cities have begun to direct their efforts toward bolstering summer learning programs that blend academics with interactive enrichment activities.

For example, I can recall the summer following sixth grade where I attended Fernbank Science Center’s STEM Summer Academy in Atlanta. We learned about growing hydroponic plants and how food was processed for missions on the space shuttle. Our professors helped us to conduct science experiments where we grew crystals and simulated space missions that incorporated mathematics, chemistry, and physics lessons. The best part of the summer came when we attended Space Camp for a week in Huntsville, AL.

Fortunately, many city leaders have focused on providing access to these programs to a broader set of young people. For many of the families within my neighborhood, mine included, the lack of sufficient reading materials and resources to maintain academic skills acquired during the year made summer learning programs essential to addressing the achievement gap between us and our middle and upper class peers.

Why Summer Learning Matters to Cities

Learning and having fun far away from the Classroom: Whispers of Ancient History: Theatre of Epidaurus in Athens.
Learning and having fun far away from the Classroom: Whispers of Ancient History: Theatre of Epidaurus in Athens.

Loss in academic skills over summer vacation varies across grade level, subject matter, and family income. For all students, the loss is equal to roughly one month of school education. However, research shows that low-income students suffer disproportionately, losing closer to three months of grade- level equivalency. This loss in academic skills contributes to two thirds of the achievement gap between lower and higher income ninth graders and can be attributed to summer learning loss during their elementary school years. This learning loss has also been found to be cumulative, and can affect low-income students’ success rates for high school completion, post-secondary education, and workforce preparedness.

A research study released by Johns Hopkins University in 2007 entitled Summer learning and its implications: Insights from the Beginning School Study states that “low socioeconomic status youth are more likely to enter adulthood without high school certification and are less likely to attend a four year college than their middle and upper class peers.” For low-income African Americans, the situation is even more troubling. Writer Jordan Iceland characterizes the U.S. poverty population by revealing that “poor African-American children are less likely to escape poverty than others – 1 in 3 were still poor at ages 25 to 27, as compared to 1 in 12 white children.”

It is for these reasons that cities must continue investing in successful summer learning programs and encourage the expansion of local programs into city and statewide initiatives. One of the largest challenges that summer learning programs face is the lack of available funding; however, with the support of cities, these programs can obtain the resources needed to serve their target audiences and scale up to ensure the greatest impact within their communities.

Summer learning programs help to encourage parental involvement in youth education, which has been shown to enhance academic achievement. They also allow summer learning to become a collaborative effort among city organizations through partnerships with parks and recreations departments, as well as public library systems, police departments, youth employment agencies, and community health organizations.  Alliances among these different venues allow summer learning programming to take an all-inclusive approach to addressing to health disparities, crime, workforce development, education completion, and academic inequity.

Through their academic framework and emphasis on extracurricular activities, they expose many youth to arts and cultural experiences, STEM, and even post-secondary educational opportunities they may have never been exposed to otherwise. I can personally attest to the fact that summer learning programs can serve as academic and personal enrichment opportunities.

For youth who participate in summer learning programs, cumulative learning loss is decreased and confidence in their ability to achieve academically is increased. With the assistance of summer learning programs, youth are more likely to complete their primary and secondary educations. They also feel encouraged continuing on to post-secondary education options as well. These decisions ultimately lead to a greater number of educated workers in cities, which is something we all benefit from.