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Cash-strapped families struggle to keep kids learning through summer

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia. It’s 8 a.m., and Diane Parrish is frantically hustling to get her husband and three kids out the door of their Germantown home. A news anchor’s voice blares from a television in the corner of the kitchen as 14-year-old twin boys Fountain and Jamar and daughter Mariah, 8, devour their cereal and orange juice.

Even though it’s summer, Parrish, a stay-at-home mom, is in a hurry to drop her kids off down the street at DePaul Catholic School, where they’re enrolled in a summer literacy program facilitated by the Springboard Collaborative, a Philadelphia organization that strives to provide high-quality summer learning opportunities to low-income families.

It’s draining for Parrish and her husband, Gerald, to engage their kids intellectually over the summer, financially and schedule-wise.

“I have children with multiple problems — physical problems — so we’re constantly running between doctors’ appointments trying to get things done during the day,” said Parrish. “It’s not easy. The day is pretty hectic.”

One of the sons, Fountain, has eosinphilic esophagitis, an allergic inflammatory disease in the espophagus, and his brother Jamar has reflex neurovascular dystrophy, which causes sporadic bursts of radiating physical pain. Diane and Gerald, who operates his own communications and technology company, have also been responsible for covering the tuition of their eldest daughter, Chanell, who just graduated from college. In addition, they absorb the costs of taking care of Diane’s elderly mother.

"Our finances are stretched to the bare minimum," she said.

Summer slide — the loss of academic gains by children over the summer — hits Philadelphia’s low-income families harder than their middle- and high-income counterparts. Families like the Parrishes need to go the distance in order to keep their kids on track academically in the summer. Most families facing the stresses that they are find it difficult to keep up.

Single parents or parents in low-income households often cannot afford to enroll their children in full-time summer camps or programs that emphasize learning.

“There’s a lot of cultural and socioeconomic inequities [that influence summer slide],” said Nancy Peter, director of the Out-of-School Time Resource Center.

According to the National Summer Learning Association, upwards of half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be attributed to unequal access to summer learning opportunities. This means low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.

The Baltimore-based organization, which aims to provide more equal access to summer learning opportunities, also found that only about 20 percent of low-income youth participate in formal summer programs.

“Kids who do not have resources or do not necessarily live in families or households where learning is encouraged on a daily basis are going to have a much steeper slide than kids who are in resourced families,” Peter said.

Gerald Parrish, a parent who has three children involved with Springboard, takes a moment to work on literacy training with another child whose parents weren’t able to attend that day at DePaul Catholic School in Germantown. (Photo: Dorian Geiger)

Alejandro Gac-Artigas, founder of the Springboard Collaborative and a former 1st-grade teacher, thinks parents are the missing link when it comes to summer slide.

Springboard contracts schools and their teachers to run programming in their buildings over the summer. Children participate in a half-day of instruction Monday through Friday over five weeks and are grouped by reading level rather than grade level. Every week, teachers lead a workshop training their families on how to be effective teachers at home. The organization’s school partners select the students that would most benefit from programming and schools pay a per-student partnership fee, making programming free for selected families.

“Low-income parents have been left out of the process of educating their kids,” said Gac-Artigas. The traditional school system approaches low-income kids by "focus[ing] exclusively on the interaction between teachers and students, writing parents off as unwilling or unable to help.”

Gac-Artigas founded Springboard in 2011. A Harvard graduate and named one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” in 2014, Gac-Artigas is just 25 — and his passion for equal-access education is palpable. This summer the organization has about 1,300 kids being taught by 99 teachers at 20 different school sites around the city and in Camden.

“When you picture a school community in a high-resourced area, there’s a triangle between teachers, parents, and students,” said Gac-Artigas. “Kids are learning through all those pathways so they’re able to make progress inside and out of school.”

Single father Dion Jones, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, missed the deadline to enroll his sons — Jayven and Cameron, who are 2 and 6 years old — in the Springboard program but plans to get them involved next summer.

“I work full time, so it’s kind of difficult to get my kids involved in things as far as summer camps that have an aspect that keep the kids reading and learning, you know?” said Jones, wearing a backwards cap, sunglasses, and a yellow Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt. “It doesn’t really fit into my budget."

Dion Jones with his sons Jayven, 2, and Cameron, 6. A single father in North Philadelphia, Jones struggles to engage his children academically over the summer. (Photo: Dorian Geiger)

Jones, 27, shares custody of Jayven and Cameron with their mother and he has a large family support network to look after his kids while he’s working full time as a correctional officer at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Still, it’s difficult for him to ensure that his children continue learning during summer.

“During the school year, all you do is drop them off at school and they learn," Jones explained. "But during the summer you have to get more engaged yourself. But with working a full-time job, I don’t have as much time. I’m with them for a few hours and then I have to go to work.”

Back at the Parrish home, Diane takes a quick breather from what has already been a chaotic morning.

"I’m exhausted," she says with a smile, perspiration noticeable on her forehead.

She has noticed an improvement in her children’s reading skills since the Springboard program began earlier this summer. This accomplishment, she believes, is priceless, regardless of schedule and finances.

"It takes a lot out of us to be able to do this program and everything else during the summer," she said, "but we found that the Springboard program is well worth it."

Subscribe to the Notebook’s YouTube & Vimeo channels to see all of the Summer Lost episodes. Follow Dorian Geiger on Twitter.

Watch the other episodes in the series Episode 1: The slide

Episode 2: City’s summer camps transform into classrooms

Episode 4: In Baltimore, students go high-tech at low cost

Episode 5: Immigrants face steeper summer slide

Episode 6: As summer ends, promising start in push to curb learning loss

Talking summer learning loss with PhillyCAM

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