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Stalled on summer learning loss: District offerings dwindle

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This article will appear in our forthcoming print edition focusing on expanded learning time, which comes out at the end of next week.

by Connie Langland

Jennifer Graham says she’s well aware of what researchers and educators have come to call "summer learning loss," but she’s not concerned. Graham has made sure her daughter is in camp.

When looking around for summer activities for her 9-year-old daughter Talitha Roberts, she chose the one with – as she put it – “the education piece.”

“I had several choices,” said Graham, mentioning a dance camp, a day care center, and a church program.

But Talitha will attend Camp PCAT at the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology in West Oak Lane.

Talitha already has an idea of what to expect: She attended the camp last summer and is a regular at the PCAT afterschool program.

“Last summer, we did science, mixing cornstarch with water, and when you put it on hands, they feel softer,” she said. There were also trips to a nearby park, computer time, and exercises “to burn off energy,” she recalled.

This makes Graham confident that Talitha will go back to school in September “right back in gear. We’ll have to juggle a bit at the end of the summer, but there’s no long stretch of down time—nowhere near it.”

Such down time, when students aren’t keeping up with academic pursuits, is the major cause of “summer learning loss.” The research leaves no doubt that children lose ground in math, reading, and academic readiness skills in the idle weeks stretching from the last bell of June to the start of school in September.

The risks are greater for low-income children. By middle school, what they’ve lost for lack of high-quality summer programming counts as a primary cause of an ever-widening academic achievement gap separating them from middle-class peers.

And what’s lost in the summer affects learning in the fall. Teachers report spending three to four weeks re-teaching concepts that students had learned the previous spring, according to the National Summer Learning Association, a leading advocate on the issue. This redundant instruction comes, of course, at the expense of fall semester lesson plans.

But a decade-long push to promote summer schooling for students in Philadelphia has stalled. The budget crisis has caused the District to severely constrict its summer offerings.

Only about 2,000 of the District’s 140,000 students will participate in District-run programs this summer—a far cry from the scenario in the years 2009 to 2011, when tens of thousands of students attended the Summer Learning and More (SLAM) program that was underwritten with millions in federal stimulus dollars.

While the lack of a broad District-run program is a setback, tens of thousands of students will participate in city-run camps that aim to mix a dose of academic skill-building with typical summertime activities.

Some specifics:

  • The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department expects to host as many as 10,000 children at 140 day camps across the city—and is providing lunch. Last summer, the department served 3.2 million meals at its various sites. The department also operates 70 pools, sports programs. and a number of specialty camps.
    The Department of Human Services’ Out-of-School Time (OST) initiative, which coordinates afterschool programs run by about 70 provider agencies, supports more than 140 summer camps run by those same groups. Last year, those six-week camps served 10,500 youth.
    The Free Library of Philadelphia projects upwards of 50,000 children and teens will use its facilities this summer. Highlights will include a “20 Million Minute” reading challenge, Science in the Summer workshops, and work with e-textiles, the latest in imbedding tiny lights or sensory gear into cloth.

“In our camps, we want our young people to maintain those skill sets that help them to do well in the classroom yet to try new things. We want them to have fun,” said Lorraine McGirt, OST administrator.

There’s an emphasis on academic enrichment and learning-by-doing projects—the same hands-on approach the OST program backs for afterschool programs.

But for all the city activities, plus numerous private camps and sports leagues, there’s no reliable tally of how many school-age children in the city participate—or don’t—in summer programs. Improved data-gathering by the OST project may begin to answer that question in a few years.

Costs can be daunting

For families like Talitha’s, the challenge is finding a program that fits their schedule, pocketbook, and child’s needs.

Leslie Gibson’s daughter Paisley Gibson-White, 8, also will attend the PCAT summer camp. Like Graham, she looked for something that included an explicit learning component.

“I wanted to see something project-based, something where she was applying some skills,” Gibson said. Last year, Gibson had pulled Paisley from a different camp. “Trips got canceled, and when I would ask her what she had done, she would say, ‘We just played,’” she said.

Camp will cost them $600 for six weeks, ending in mid-August, about three weeks before the start of most District-run and charter schools. “It’s a juggle of time and financial resources,” said Gibson, “but it’s a great benefit.”

But other families find the camp costs daunting. Marsettis Jackson of Overbrook said her daughter—a single mother of two girls and a boy—cannot afford the fees. “When you have three children, it adds up to a lot of money. And the places you can afford—they’re cheap but not safe,” she said. Plus, she said, camp hours aren’t long enough to accommodate a working parent.

Several generations of Jacksons pitch in to watch over the children, ages 7, 9, and 13, who will spend most weekdays with their 80-year-old great-grandmother. To keep skills sharp, all three will have books to read and reports to write—assignments from their teachers at Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School.

“Every year, looking for a camp, something for them to do, it’s a dilemma,” said the children’s grandfather, Bob Jackson.

The District scaled back summer operations in 2012, and this summer will be no different. There will be courses for seniors a few credits shy of graduation, extended services for special-education students whose Individualized Education Plan requires them, and so-called summer bridge programs for rising 9th graders at a few high schools with U.S. Department of Labor funds.

But the scope of the programming is “teeny, teeny,” said Vicki Ellis, who oversees the effort in the District’s Office of Academic Enrichment and Support.

In 2010, the year that an average of 33,000 to 36,000 attended daily, the District analyzed outcomes for a sampling of attendees. “If kids attended SLAM, we showed statistically significantly less learning loss,” said Ellis.

By last year, the stimulus money was gone and so was SLAM.

Not a luxury

Gary Huggins, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association, said some districts have embraced summer instruction not as “an extra or a luxury” but as essential to meeting college-readiness goals.

The trend is toward a “new vision” of summer school. “You have to attract kids to your program. Academic rigor matters, but so does having fun,” said Huggins.

The Pittsburgh school district, for example, decided to “flip the punitive summer school model on its head” and mix “exciting academics” with fun activities, according to Christine Cray, director of the Summer Dreamers Academy.

The program last year served 2,300 K-8 students—almost 10 percent of total K-12 enrollment, at a cost of about $1,200 per student. It’s funded with federal Title I money plus local and national foundation support.

“We’re cheaper hour per hour than [remediation] during the regular school year, and we’re getting great results,” said Cray.

Even if resources are tight, district and city leaders can “communicate with the public about the importance of keeping kids engaged over the summer,” Huggins said. In Chicago, for instance, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is spearheading a public-private “Summer of Learning” initiative, including badges that children can flash on field trips to accrue electronic credits toward prizes.

Teachers also can warn parents about the perils of “summer slide” at end-of-school-year meetings.

That’s how a kindergarten teacher convinced Princetta Rogers to find programs for her three children. The younger two, Faith, 15, and Josiah, 10, will attend camp at Morrison Elementary School in the Olney section for a second summer.

“A lot of what they learn … if the brain doesn’t continue to pull in academic information over the summer, they lose that learning,” said Rogers.

Last summer, children at Morrison researched how cars are put together, then built a go-cart big enough for one of the smaller campers to operate. “They had to use the computer in an advanced way and write with comprehension about what they learned,” Rogers said. “It was fantastic for the guys, and the girls were interested too.”

“We make sure our kids are safe and engaged in fun activities and that learning continues through the summer,” said Charline Kent, who oversees Morrison and two other afterschool/summer programs for Korean Community Development Services. “You make it fun. They want to be here.”

“Summer,” said Huggins, of the National Summer Learning Association, “represents a great break from school. But it shouldn’t be a break from learning.”

Connie Langland is a freelance writer on education issues.

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