Summertime: Is the Living Too Easy?

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Written by Jane Quinn, Originally published in Youth Today Newspaper

Many of the young people that youth agencies serve are about to lose a lot of what they’ve spent the past nine months learning. Research indicates that all young people experience significant learning losses during the summer break from school, and that the magnitude of these declines varies by grade level, subject matter and family income.

For example, low-income children show greater academic declines than do their more affluent peers. Regardless of income level, students lose an average of 2.6 months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation over the summer.

Youth-serving agencies can help to reverse this troubling phenomenon.

It is a phenomenon that can best be explained as a matter of “use it or lose it.” Many low-income children fall behind because they don’t get to practice reading and math between June and September. More affluent youth commonly read for pleasure or have opportunities to engage in other kinds of stimulating activities that require literacy skills. However, they tend to slip back in math because they generally don’t practice their math skills outside the formal classroom setting.

The past decade has seen some worthy experiments in countering this problem – such as the Summer Training and Employment Program developed by Public/Private Ventures, offering academic support along with job readiness and teen pregnancy prevention components, and the Breakaways Program sponsored by the New York City public schools, offering academic support and enrichment, combined with typical summer camp activities.

Nevertheless, the summer months generally represent untapped potential for young people and youth-work practitioners. Although it is the busiest time of year for many youth agencies, as they serve large numbers of youth for up to 10 hours a day, few organizations have harnessed the full power of summer to promote young people’s learning and healthy development.

Just as after-school programs have started to expand their purview to include academic enrichment, summer programs can move beyond recreation and social development by providing opportunities for young people to practice and apply their academic skills through hands-on learning.

The Center for Summer Learning, led by Ron Fairchild at Johns Hopkins University, offers new resources for youth workers, educators, researchers, policy-makers and funders to carry this out. According to Fairchild, current public policies related to summer learning concentrate almost exclusively on school district-sponsored remedial programs. Such programs rarely involve partnerships with community-based organizations or universities, and generally serve as punitive alternatives to social promotion.

In contrast, the center advocates an approach to summer learning that incorporates educational activities that look and feel different from the regular school day and generate youth engagement and motivation.

For example, the Children’s Aid Society partners with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company to sponsor an eight-week AileyCamp for middle-grade students from across New York City. This specialty camp teaches basic and intermediate dance skills; poetry, journal-writing, public speaking and other forms of literacy enrichment; life skills such as planning, goal-setting, decision-making and conflict resolution; and theater performance and production skills.

The Center for Summer Learning runs the Teach Baltimore Summer Academy, which recruits and trains university students to provide at least seven weeks of literacy instruction to low-income primary-grade youth in kindergarten through second grade.

Nearly 300 college students from 45 institutions of higher learning have served as instructors. Preliminary findings drawn from a randomized, three-year longitudinal study indicate that the Baltimore intervention has successfully countered summer learning loss in reading among youth in early elementary school.

On the other side of the country, the Milken Family Foundation supports summer literacy camps for low-income children, and it recently reported positive results from an intervention in Los Angeles that integrated reading instruction and tutoring into a summer camp program for low-achieving first-graders.

As we work with young people this summer, let’s borrow an idea from some performing arts colleagues at Lincoln Center, one of New York City’s major cultural venues, which sponsors an annual summer festival called Serious Fun. Paying concerted attention to this notion of combining fun with learning can help us unleash the power of summer programs to engage, challenge and support the young people we serve.

Jane Quinn is Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.