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Summer Learning Programs' Potential for Bridging Achievement Gaps

By guest blogger Gina Cairney

Children learn best when they're healthy, and while summer is usually a time when many children participate in a myriad of summer enrichment programs, some children who could most benefit don't get that opportunity, according to the National Summer Learning Association. This can have an impact on not only their physical health during the summer months, but their academic health as well.

Without equitable high-quality summer learning opportunities that are engaging and enriching, achievement gaps are likely to persist, the Baltimore-based advocacy organization says. Moreover, a new report from the California-based Summer Matters campaign suggests that unequal access to summer learning programs may be a key factor in continuing academic disparities between low-income students and their higher-income peers.

The report, "Summer Matters: How Summer Learning Strengthens Students' Success," published this month, looked at the effects high-quality summer learning programs in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Fresno had on their students. The findings suggest that summer programs with engaging enrichment activities may help address the widening achievement gaps.

All three of the programs evaluated, LA's Best, Central Enrichment Summer Adventures, and Summer of Service are in districts where over half of the students are eligible for free or reduce-priced lunches, and serve a large number of English-language learners.

Each of the programs has its own unique curriculum, but the overall findings show that these programs had a positive effect on student learning, including improved academic efficacy, positive peer and adult relationships, and strong academic work habits.

Using the San Diego Quick Assessment, the programs were able to measure students' vocabulary skills and found that students who participated in the programs ended their summer with vocabulary skills that were closer to their grade level. The report also found that English-language learners also shows significant increases in grade-level vocabulary skills.

One key factor the report found was that the quality of the program does matter. The three programs surveyed in the report were "very intentional about building great programs," Jennifer Peck, co-chair of the Summer Matters campaign said in an email. The program organizers were "thoughtful about hiring and training the right staff to design and deliver these activities," she said.

The Summer Matters report adds to a 2011 study by the RAND Corp., which also found that high-quality summer programs can help combat summer learning loss. It characterized successful programs as having small classes with engaging activities and individualized attention.

Although this new report looks specifically at programs in California, its findings may have larger implications on what summer learning programs throughout the country can do to provide high-quality environments.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating and sustaining a summer program, but Peck noticed some foundational elements shared by Summer Matters pilot communities: Leadership.

"Leaders who have a clear vision for the program, are committed to making it better every year, and work to secure resources on an on-going basis," Peck said is what leads to successful programs.

Some districts may experience financial barriers to implementing and sustaining summer programs but "not paying for summer learning is also a cost," said Peck, and although the cost of programs can vary depending on district's needs, Peck suggests districts don't need to spend a lot of money on programs.

"Communities can be creative about their approach," she said which includes developing partnerships between community-based organizations and districts, and stepping away from a "traditional" learning environment to get students engaged in learning during the summer months.

In Kentucky, for example, various camps try to cater to differing student interests, from ballet camps to dog training camps. There are even academic camps focused on improving skills like reading and writing for those students interested in developing those skills.

YMCA branches in the greater Cincinnati area take a more academic approach, using a workbook to ensure students don't forget the skills they just learned, while building on them for the next school year.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an increase in summer opportunities for Chicago youths—including summer jobs, as well as educational and recreational activities—to help keep students safe and learning throughout the summer season.

"Summer learning is essential to K-12 students' success," said Peck, and the report's findings "spotlight the numerous ways that summer learning programs bolster academic and social skills that are vital to children's educational achievement."

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