Across The Children's Aid Society, Summer Combines Constructive Fun and Quality Learning
The summer break that for most affluent children offers exposure to continuous learning can become, for low-income students, a time of lost opportunity. Research shows that all students experience some learning loss in mathematics between June and August; but, unlike their more advantaged peers who make slight gains in reading, low-income students lose on average three months of proficiency if not exposed to enriching activities during summer. Many never recover, and the cumulative effect of this drop contributes to the widening achievement gap. Health can also be an issue, as there is substantial evidence that children who stay home over the summer are prone to weight gain.
The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) has traditionally changed this reality for hundreds of New York City low-income youngsters by making summer a season of constructive fun and quality learning instead of one of danger and lost opportunity. This summer, under the leadership of Drema Brown, Vice President of our School-Age Division, Children’s Aid developed a new curriculum designed to give participants a boost in reading, critical thinking and foundational math skills necessary to achieve solid academic and emotional success during the upcoming school year and long into their future.
Brown observes that this curriculum blends a variety of skills and helps staff across our community schools and centers to create solid plans so that students are able to take full advantage of all that summer has to offer. “We are committed to ensuring that participants are engaged in fun, meaningful daily activities throughout the summer,” she says.
The curriculum promotes summer learning in two ways: 1) by giving staff age-appropriate resources to plan fun and engaging learning experiences from kindergarten through eighth grade; 2) by providing students, on a daily basis (for five weeks), with structured opportunities to explore topics of inter¬est to them, while at the same time requiring their full engagement as active readers, writers, speakers and thinkers. The resources focus on five major areas: Literacy; STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math); Fitness and Nutrition; Arts and Self-Expression; and Social-Emotional Learning.
Migdalia Cortes-Torres, director at one of CAS flagship middle/high community schools, believes that having a unifying curriculum facilitates the process. “Our summer camps always had unifying themes, but it was very challenging to create, adapt or identify curricula and resources,” she says. “I appreciate that Children’s Aid wanted to be intentional about standardizing the process while still allowing for customization and creativity. We encouraged the staff and students to use their talent, skills and interests so that they could own the curriculum and bring the resources to life. The kids and staff are pleased, and so am I.”
Jorge Blau, program director at the same school, adds that the literacy curriculum was particularly useful. “Having quality pre-planned resources took a lot of work away from the staff and from my shoulders,” he says. “With some tweaking, we were able to focus on delivering content creatively, and on particular strengths or weaknesses of participants. It was definitely helpful.”
Besides being intentional about dosage, quality and maintaining a balance among literacy, arts, health and fun, the CAS Summer Programs are unique in that they offer extensive opportunities for enrichment, not only for students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, but also for younger children, parents and other caregivers.
Along with the regular summer program, CAS schools offered a nationally recognized dance camp for over 100 inner-city middle schoolers, in partnership with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Early Head Start and Head Start toddlers attended camps at multiple CAS sites while a large number of high school students interned at prestigious organizations or earned stipends for teaching and mentoring middle and elementary schoolers. Other groups attended the EXCEL College Prep Program at New York University during July and a college readiness “boot camp” in August. And a team from our newest community high school spent the summer designing a plan to market the comprehensive school-based health center, set to open in September, to their peers and to parents. In keeping with our ongoing emphasis on family engagement, there was a camp at one of the middle schools for 40 parents, focusing on key parenting and educational issues such as college readiness.
We are measuring our short-term impact by administering a reading comprehension assessment at the beginning and end of the summer, and by tracking campers’ performance in school next year. However, at Children’s Aid, we hope that a more long-lasting result will be breaking the cycle of poverty in participants’ lives and instilling an intrinsic love for lifelong learning.