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Stump The Summer Slump With Fun

Those lazy, hazy days when school's out often lead to learning loss. Here's how parents can prevent "brain drain" and keep kids engaged all season long.

“Summer, summer, summertime / Time to sit back and unwind.” So goes DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s classic anthem to vacation season, capturing the core of what summer break means for millions of American schoolkids. But more and more, education advocates are warning that this traditional time off can be the path to educational disaster. They point to a troubling yet persistent phenomenon that disproportionately affects Black children: This long summer of unwinding translates into a long summer of unlearning from June to September known as summer learning loss.

Yet learning loss isn’t inevitable. Summer enrichment programs can not only stem the ebb tide but also boost a child’s learning. That’s important because all students lose educational ground over the summer. According to two studies, most lose about two months of grade equivalency in math. In reading, middle-income kids actually show slight gains in the summer, but low-income students lose about two months there as well. Summer after summer, grade after grade, these losses are compounded: By ninth grade, summer learning loss accounts for two thirds of the achievement gap between lower-income and middle-income students, according to a decadelong study of Baltimore schoolchildren by Johns Hopkins University.

Those kinds of numbers are pushing the issue to the forefront as never before: In 2009 President Obama officially declared a National Summer Learning Day (June 21), urging parents to read to their kids and invest in museum memberships and library cards during these crucial months. Last year the National Summer Learning Day celebration included hundreds of events across the country, such as a United Way Day of Action on the National Mall that involved stuffing 50,000 backpacks full of reading materials. ” If we don’t maximize summer learning, we are not going to close this achievement gap,” says Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “It’s like we’re pushing this rock up the hill for ten months of the year and then watching it go down [the next two months]. We need a new vision for summer learning.”


Two years ago Stephon Corley struggled with reading. His mother, Tracey Daniels, learned about Y Readers from Stephon’s teachers, and the Charlotte, North Carolina, mother of two enrolled her then 6-year-old son. The free six-week program, offered by the YMCA, provides 100 hours of focused reading instruction interspersed with traditional camp activities, like swimming, crafts and music. “Before he went to Y Readers, I couldn’t get Stephon to read a book for anything. He didn’t have any self-confidence,” says Tracey, who works the midnight shift caring for autistic adults in a group home. But with the focused attention and innovative holistic programming, Stephon began to blossom almost immediately. “He started coming home and reading more on his own. We’d go to the mailbox and he’s telling me what came in the mail,” Tracey says. “I used to point to words to sound them out, and one day he turns to me and says, ‘Mom, I got this. You don’t have to do that anymore.’ ” The impact of Y Readers isn’t just in Stephon’s confidence but also in his academic performance: He has gone from lagging behind his classmates to meeting his goals for the school’s Accelerated Reader assessment.

Tracey Daniels tapped one of the most important resources for finding an enrichment program: teachers. They are often plugged in to networks of hard-to-find or free resources, so programs they suggest won’t necessarily strain your wallet, Huggins says. But it’s paramount that you know what questions to ask, and when. Huggins suggests using springtime parent–teacher conferences to lay the groundwork. “You want to ask teachers what particular strengths and struggles your child has,” he says. “They can say to you, ‘Your child excels at this, so find a program that encourages it.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Your child struggles here, so he or she needs help in that area.’ These are the answers that should guide you.”


Once you’ve talked to a teacher and pinpointed a program that interests you, make sure it fits your needs. Experts say you should ask whether it offers field trips, particularly to places your child wouldn’t normally visit, so something more adventurous than, say, the zoo. You want a mix of academic work as well as some physical activity. Since many low-income children go hungry during the summer because they miss out on free lunches, look for one that serves healthy meals and snacks. Generally you want a program that complements the school year, but doesn’t copy it. That means innovative, ouside-the-box teaching, something Jo Michelle Hale found in Project Exploration. The cutting-edge program works with 250 middle- and high-school students, most of them Black and Latino, in 40 Chicago public schools. Hale’s daughters, Nafatari and Nailah, 16 and 14, respectively, participate in Project Exploration’s Sisters 4 Science, which gives girls of color personalized experiences with science and scientists and, during the summer months, offers a trip to South Dakota to do fieldwork with paleontologists. “It’s not like they’re sitting doing assignments or getting lectures,” Hale says. “They’re doing things that really make the science come alive for them.” She says her daughters are like “any other kids,” meaning they can’t wait for summer’s freedom. But she started turning those days into educational opportunities early. “We’ve done activities in summer from when they were little—going to the zoo, the aquarium,” she says. “And I think that opened them up to explore other things. I’ve always wanted learning to be fun for them.”

Hale and parents like her have zeroed in on the answer to the million-dollar question when it comes to summer learning: How do you sell the idea of more school in the season of ice cream trucks, beach trips and block parties? The answer is fun, fun and more fun. “If it’s not fun, it’s not going to work,” says Christie Ko, executive director at the Fiver Children’s Foundation, a youth development organization in New York City that serves 500 kids, including a summer residential program near Syracuse, New York. Her program offers everything from Latin dance to horseback riding to weaving, carefully balanced with mandatory work in reading and science and tours of area colleges.

As a bonus, the foundation offers paid internships for kids who need to earn money for their families. Experts say many programs offer full or partial scholarships or innovative means of payment, so don’t let cost deter you. The benefits of applying are likely to be worth it. “We try to make it feel as little like school as possible,” says Ko. “Kids don’t want to go to school 12 months a year. But you have to keep them learning 12 months a year, and that means you have to be innovative in figuring out how to accomplish that and keep them engaged.”

How do you make math fun? Here’s an idea: Look for a program that teaches robotics. That’s one of the science and engineering classes students can take at Youth Exploring Science, or YES, a four-year program for high schoolers in St. Louis. This free eight-week summer session for kids from underserved communities creates a hands-on learning environment where they can delve into subjects like biofuels, energy, astronomy and agriscience. The program’s results are undeniable: While the high school graduation rate for Black students in Missouri is just 56 percent, 100 percent of YES students graduate.

In 2007, teens from the YES-2-TECH group won first prize in a contest cosponsored by Popular Science magazine for making a low-cost geodesic dome greenhouse and a runner-up prize in an amazon.com science fair for the project and a 31-step online instruction guide to build it on the popular how-to Web site instructables.com. “Most of my students come to me as struggling students or failing students. But over four years we not only get these students hooked on education and wanting to learn, but thinking of themselves as scientists and successful students,” says Diane Miller, who runs YES. “Many times for African-American kids, they’re not given challenging work, and there’s this idea that if they don’t have good grades, they can’t do it. But a lot of research shows that when kids have an ‘aha’ experience, they will persist in science even when it’s challenging.”


Okay, so it’s already summer, and you haven’t found anything. Don’t despair. The spring is the best time to begin planning, but many camps don’t begin until after the Fourth of July, so call around for openings. Even so, advocates acknowledge that knowing how and where to access low-cost or free summer enrichment opportunities remains one of the biggest challenges for parents. And high-quality summer learning programs are still too few and far between, they say.

You will have to do some digging. Ask other parents where they send their child—and make sure it’s a place they are sending their child back to. Ask them the questions mentioned earlier, but also add what they liked about it, what their child got out of it and why they are sending them back.

Then let your fingers do the walking. The Internet has a wealth of information. Try a Web site like the Statewide After-school Networks (statewideafterschoolnetworks.net), which lists local summer learning programs. (See sidebar for more sites that could help.) Start your questions all over again.

And don’t forget: There’s plenty you can do on your own, says Jennifer Peck, executive director of Partnership for Children and Youth. Get a reading list from the teacher. Have your children read to you, then have them write a few sentences explaining the story. Take weekend field trips. Visit the library, which often has numerous free programs. Anything to keep them from vegging out on video games or the TV all day.

Your child’s turnaround could be astounding. Just ask Kevin Griffin. Eight years ago he’d never given much thought to college. But then he begrudgingly walked into YES, the St. Louis science program a buddy told him about. “Summer was a time for me to just hang out with my friends and family—eating, going outside, playing sports, chasing girls around,” says Griffin, now 22. YES, however, hit all the right notes: innovation, adventure, fun. “The teacher said we were going to clone carrots,” recalls Griffin. “I knew nothing about cloning at all, and I had no idea a bunch of kids could actually clone stuff. It was amazing.”

These days Griffin is a media studies and videography major at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who teaches robotics as a YES instructor. His biggest thrill is watching the program’s young underachievers gain confidence, graduate and go on to college. “I just want to see them successful, especially the African-American young men,” Griffin says.

“They’re so intelligent and I think they could be whatever they want to be, but I don’t think they are ever told that. That’s a big reason teens come back to YES: The kids are not looked down on. The expectations are high,” he says, then adds the magic word, “but it’s still really, really fun.”