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6 Urban Districts to Study Effectiveness of Summer Programs

The Wallace Foundation this morning announced a three-year, $50 million research project to determine the long-term effects of summer learning programs.

The New York City-based foundation (which also underwrites coverage of extended and expanded learning at Education Week) will provide grants to six urban districts— Boston; Cincinnati, Ohio; Dallas; Rochester, N.Y.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Duval County, Fla., which includes Jacksonville— to support their summer academic programs while at the same time collecting longitudinal data on students that will allow researchers from the RAND Corp. to track cumulative academic progress, summer learning loss, behavior and transitions into middle school.

The districts will split an initial $2.7 million in grants this summer to support or expand their programs, several of which started thanks to money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus grants passed in 2009.

For example, Duval County schools in Florida created Superintendent's Academies that provide intensive reading, math, science and enrichment sessions for 1,500 kindergarten through 5th-grade students in six schools implementing academic turnaround plans. The academies, which feature field trips, science experiments and math games, have shown initial gains on district pre- and post-tests, but Kathryn M. LeRoy, Duval's chief academic officer, said until now the district has not been able to follow students through the school year or gauge how many students return summer after summer.

"I think it will probably give us some good data around how effective we've been in the summer," Ms. LeRoy told me. "Our gut is our kids are doing much better, and this will give us the chance to track that."

Likewise, Pittsburgh's Summer Dreamers Academy, launched through ARRA, has already proven popular in middle school, enrolling 2,200, or 40 percent of eligible students. Based on an evaluation of the first year of the program by the National Summer Learning Association, participants improved 35 to 45 points more than nonparticipants during the summer on the Scholastic Reading Inventory assessment.

Cate Reed, the executive director of student support services for Pittsburgh schools, said the district plans to use the Wallace grant to expand the summer program to elementary grades. The program will partner schools with 50 community organizations, Ms. Reed said, to include sessions on hiking, biking, kayaking, theater, and "mad science."

"Our real focus is on our low-income kids, who can lose up to two months of learning during the summer," Ms. Reed said. "They don't have access to high- quality engaging activities during the summer the way some of their more affluent peers may have, so we want kids have the chance to get that academic piece in a fun way."

The Wallace study is intended to build on another recent Wallace-funded RAND study released in June, which found that students in poverty disproportionately lose academic ground during the summer, compared to wealthier peers. The report cited research suggesting high-quality summer programs can help combat this summer loss, at least in the short term. Yet it also noted that, at an average cost of $1,109 to $2,801 per student for a six-hour-a-day, five-week program, summer programs often fall to the budget ax for districts facing tight financial times.

The current dismal economic picture for districts may actually help the current study, however. Edward Pauly, director of research and evaluation for Wallace, said that limited summer program funding has created waiting lists for summer participation in all of the chosen districts, allowing researchers to randomly assign students to either participate in the summer program or not. For ethical reasons, the programs will include any student at risk of repeating a grade, and these students will not be included in the research study.

The chosen districts provide varied summer experiences, from Boston's nature and environmental science enrichment to Dallas's fine arts project learning. Yet they all share several consistent features, already noted as best practices in the June RAND report, and which will be evaluated in the longitudinal study. They are:

• At least five to six weeks' duration;
• Sessions taught by certified teachers;
• At least three hours a day of academic content, split between reading and math; and
• Additional enrichment activities.

While "tens of thousands" of students are expected to participate in the district programs, Mr. Pauly said, researchers will track at least 1,500 participating students from the summer before they enter 4th grade, through two years of summer program participation, through the end of 6th grade. The study will include interim reports in mid-2012 and mid-2013, with a final report the following year.

"One of the things that was interesting (in the June report) was, districts have had real challenges in figuring out how to design their summer programs because there hasn't been a foundation of research and best practices," Mr. Pauly said. "We've tried to do this in a way that will answer policymakers' questions about how to design a program as well as the big policy questions of whether you can accumulate learning over multiple summers."

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