This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This story, part of a multi-city reporting partnership focusing on expanded learning time, takes a look at new summer learning initiatives that have emerged in five major cities.
Many states and school districts around the nation that serve large numbers of low-income children are on a mission to reinvent summer experiences for them.
These districts are committed to abandoning the old idea of summer school as mandatory and punitive for students who fall behind, something that research has shown to be ineffective. Instead, they want to integrate summer school into the larger learning experience and make students want to come.
“‘A little more school’ isn’t the answer for attracting kids or engaging them in a different way,” says Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “Where we’re seeing growth is in programs that have academic rigor and are aligned with what schools are trying to do.”
Rather than aiming directly at test scores or courses, the new goal is to curtail summer learning loss, which researchers say accounts for a huge part of the academic achievement gap that opens up between low-income children and their wealthier peers as they progress through school.
Without interesting and stimulating summer activities, students’ skills atrophy. In the fall, teachers spend months helping them catch up instead of moving ahead.
Summer programs must “provide enrichment opportunities for kids,” Huggins says. “And kids have to want to come. Otherwise, we will not achieve what we want to achieve.”
Huggins’ organization has launched the New Vision for Summer School Initiative that includes 25 urban districts, including Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and several districts in California, including Fresno, Oakland and Sacramento.
Those districts collaborate on ideas, but also are committed to maximizing the use of federal funding, building a network of community partners, and collecting data on what is effective.
“They see summer as part of the academic bottom line,” says Huggins. “They know they will not hit their targets” unless they find an effective way to use the summer.
However, he notes, “there is a real budget challenge.”
Because most urban districts are stretched thin – Philadelphia, for example, has had to borrow money to open schools on time — the summer movement has relied on non-school sources of funds from both the public and private spheres. The ambitions are grand, and the hope is to influence teaching and learning year-round. But much of the summer work is based in and led by outside organizations and, in many cases, disconnected from the districts – a factor that could affect their influence and sustainability.
Foundations are providing planning and research grants. City agencies are working to improve and rethink the offerings, like sports, that already draw children, so they can add an engaging academic component.
As active as the field has become, inroads made by the growing number of non-profits that specialize in summer programs are incremental.
Earl Martin Phalen of Summer Advantage Inc. has been in the field for 17 years. His programs now reach 10,000 students nationwide.
“There’s going to have to be a growing level of, ‘How do you help scale this up through philanthropy?’” he says.
In Philadelphia, the District’s offerings have dwindled due to budget cuts. Fewer than 1,500 students attended, mostly for credit recovery and remediation.
But with a grant from the Wallace Foundation, the city government is working on coordinating the abundance of activities available to students through other departments, such as recreation, to help them incorporate academic elements.
The city Department of Human Services has an “out-of-school time” initiative, which coordinates after-school and about 140 summer camps run by 70 provider agencies that serve more than 10,000 children. The Free Library, which estimates that 50,000 children and teenagers use its facilities during the summer, has increased its organized programming.
“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,” says Lorraine McGirt, the program’s administrator.
In Chicago, the school district sent about 15,000 students to a traditional remedial summer school so they could catch up on academic work. But most of the activities, like in the other cities, came through the Summer of Learning initiative, which relied on partnerships with 140 organizations, including Phalen’s.
Most Summer Advantage programs work with students in grades K-8. But the one in Chicago, called Learn and Earn, was targeted to 13- through 15-year-olds who live in public housing. Phalen partners with the Chicago Housing Authority.
The students attend academic and enrichment programs and can earn up to $100 a week for their participation.
“Summer is the worst time for violence, drugs, teen pregnancy, gang recruitment,” Phalen says. Students in his program are rewarded for attendance, activities promoting good citizenship, and effort. “We had 96 percent daily attendance of teenagers,” he reports.
Other Summer of Learning activities included the Mikva Challenge, which focuses on promoting civic and political action. Students did research and produced a wellness campaign. Groups described different kinds of wellness – spiritual and intellectual among them – and used Twitter to discuss ideas.
So-called STEAM activities — Science, Math, Engineering, Arts and Technology– were the focus of many programs. In some, students earned “digital badges” that show they have mastered certain skills and platforms. Students also learned math through such means as fashion shows – by cutting patterns and figuring out how much fabric they will need.
Most agree that low-income students need summer activities that build character, civic values, and work habits as well as academic knowledge and skills. But it is a challenge to measure their impact, when impact is the Holy Grail that might shake loose more funds for scaling up.
New York City
New York City is completing its second year of a program called NYC Summer Quest, which uses a combination of public and private dollars to provide eight hours daily of academic and enrichment activities over five weeks to 1,100 students.
The original plan was to give students a pre- and post-test, but school officials vetoed the idea as a deterrent to participation for students who had been tested frequently during the school year.
Instead, the program relies on survey data from parents and students, attendance rates and parent engagement to gauge effectiveness. This year, some students who qualified for remedial summer school attended Summer Quest instead, and they took tests to see how they fared compared to those in the traditional program.
“What our scholars are learning now is more internal,” says Andrea Lawrence, assistant principal at South Bronx Academy, which enrolled about 135 middle school students in Summer Quest this year.
In California, the push for more summer programming is statewide, showcased in 13 districts through the “Summer Matters” campaign. It is run in partnership with the nonprofit Partnership for Children & Youth and funded by several foundations and the districts involved.
In Oakland, there is a focus on STEM and hands-on activities. Six thousand students are being served, including high school students who need to make up course credits.
As in New York, the focus here is not directly academic. The purpose is to prevent a loss of academic skills that occurs over the summer, but the projects are often designed around promoting health and emotional well-being.
“We have learning goals that have to do with health and wellness, that have to do with social and emotional learning, the kind of goals that allow us to be more innovative with our remediation and pull away from that traditional summer school model that kids find kind of a drag,” says Julie McCalmont, coordinator of the program in Oakland. “We want kids to be clamoring for our programs.”
Los Angeles exemplifies the fiscal pressures on many large urban districts that have led to the demise of traditional summer school. Five years ago, the district spent $42 million on summer programs; this year, the budget was $1 million. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, high school students who needed to make up credits lined up for limited remedial offerings.
In California cities, most of the summer options are run by nonprofits in the different locations, using both private dollars and federal funds, like those funneled through the 21st Century Learning Centers program.
Private money not enough
As welcome as the private involvement in offering summer activities is, Huggins of the National Summer Learning Association and others are concerned about the disappearance of public dollars in needy areas. If that continues, then the goal to integrate summer into the learning experience – which requires a change of mindset and culture – will be harder to achieve.
Private funding is crucial and can help, says Katie Brackenridge of California’s Partnership for Children and Youth, but “in order for summer learning programs to spread … there will need to be public support for them.”
The New Vision network coordinated by Huggins’ organization is also hoping that some of the programs will prove so successful that their philosophy – that learning activities must be fun to attract students – will ultimately influence what happens during the regular school year.
The whole discussion on how to measure “impact” may also influence the reliance on standardized testing, because many of these activities are designed to influence student behaviors and attitudes about learning in more holistic ways.
“We are engaged in that conversation,” he said. “We see this, too, as an opportunity for innovation.”
This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.