Balancing Fun and Academics to Stem Summer Learning-Loss

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Local News    For over 17 years, neutralizing summer learning-loss while offering opportunities for constructive fun has been the main goal of The Children’s Aid Society’s summer camps. Research shows that students across classes experience some sort of learning shortfall if not exposed to enriching activities during this long break; the harm to lower-income students is even greater, as they lose on average 2.6 months in literacy and math level. The cumulative effect of this drop accounts for the widening the achievement gap between lower-income students and their more affluent counterparts. Quality summer enrichment can help prevent the summer slide for all students, but particularly for those from underprivileged backgrounds.

Enrichment has three key ingredients: exposure, experience and engagement. Whether the content is academic, social, cultural or recreational (or some combination thereof), enrichment programs expand learning opportunities by exposing young people to new information and by providing hands-on learning experiences and opportunities for deep engagement.

According to Sarah Jonas, an experienced educator and consultant at the National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools, enrichment is a year-long commitment for The Children’s Aid Society and it represents the seamless thread that connects all of our out-of-school time programs, which span after-school, summer and holidays.

“Thematic learning is the organizing tool — that is how a unified structure is developed, not only at the school-based but also at the community center-based camps.” Children’s Aid runs 20 summer camps in schools and community centers for about 3,000 youths, including two country camps (in Westchester and Staten Island), and specialized camp programs including two Alvin Ailey Dance Camps, an Achievement Camp for special needs students and a late summer respite camp for disabled children at the Westchester location. “Our programs align academic standards with the principles of youth development and pay careful attention to structure (student-to-staff ratio, staff qualifications and development) and process (framework, theme, relationships, enrichment, fun, flexibility),” Jonas continues. “We are very intentional about balancing literacy and fun. We use a centrally developed thematic approach that provides lots of enrichment opportunities for students from kindergarten through eighth grade. This summer the theme is ‘My New York City.’” She adds that the planning team came up with this approach by asking program directors what they thought would be the most engaging theme for different ages and also by surveying students. Jonas emphasizes that the planners are also deliberate about the quality and dosage of the experience: “We make sure the curriculum supports students’ learning in literacy, math, social studies and science… our kids are truly exposed to quality academic enrichment and productive fun for seven weeks from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm during the summer.” Across the schools, the theme is the same but the implementation is different depending on the age of the students. The curriculum is divided into subthemes: history of the boroughs, landmarks, art and architecture, sports, beaches, bridges, museums, zoos, transportation, the people. The goal is to discover and learn about the five boroughs that comprise New York City. “The little kids might learn the name of a landmark, look at picture books about it, or go on a trip to explore it. Younger and older kids may create their own reproduction of that landmark. Older kids will learn about the landmark’s architecture, research its history and its purpose. They may work in groups to prepare a PowerPoint presentation. For the older kids it’s really about getting deeper into the learning by doing the research and presenting the learning to one another; for the younger ones it’s more about introducing them to the concepts,” Jonas explains. To ensure effective implementation there is a thorough staff orientation; prior to this, each school sends a couple of senior staff to an in-depth training that they will later turnkey to the less seasoned. The aim is not only to introduce the staff to the theme, but also to get them excited and to give them tools to bring it alive for the young people. During the final week of the curriculum there will be a ‘My New York City’ fair across the camps ; the kids will be responsible for coming up with products about what they learned. Jonas underlines the fundamental role of the culminating events: “It may be a performance, or a video, a PowerPoint, a sculpture; they can do group or individual projects. These events are both a celebration and a demonstration of achievement. We strive to find a balance between learning and fun, challenging the staff and the young people not only to have fun while learning but also to demonstrate what they’ve learned; that’s a requirement for all ages and camps. The thematic approach has been most successful in bringing summer learning alive for staff and students, making it a fun and enriching experience for all involved.”