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Programs Found to Stem Summer Learning Loss and Boost Achievement

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Students struggling the most in elementary and middle school showed the greatest gains in intensive summer programs that enrolled more than 9,300 children in 13 states and Washington, D.C., according to a new analysis.

The students were enrolled in one of three types of summer-learning programs developed by Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, a Dorchester, Mass., nonprofit, and run in partnership with schools and community organizations, such as the YMCA. 

More than half the students scored in the lowest quartile in math and more than two-thirds placed in that level in reading, based on assessments taken at the start of the summer. 

By the end of the six-week program, all students gained an average of 1.2 months of a school year in reading skills and 1.8 months for math.  The improvements were twice as high for students who scored in the lowest quartile on the assessment before the programs began.

Baltimore City public schools, which have been partnering with BELL on expanded-learning programs in the summer and after school, were at the high end of the curve.  Underperforming middle school students in that city advanced by 4.5 months in reading and more than 6 months in math.

For the roughly 900 students in kindergarten through 8th grade who attended the summer programs in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the average academic improvements after the six-week program equalled what a student would be expected to learn during 2.6 months of school in reading and 2.7 months in math.

During a normal school year, the most academically fragile students in the district lose about that much ground, said deputy superintendent Ann Clark.  With the increases, she added, "not only did we not lose ground, but we gained." 

BELL Summer Gains.png

The before and after assessments were developed by Renaissance Learning and are designed to measure achievement on the Common Core State Standards and to give teachers enough data about each student to create individualized learning plans.

As Education Week reporter Catherine Gewertz wrote in this 2008 article, numerous studies have found that all children lose about two months of math skills over the summer. Low-income children lose even more than that in reading, while middleincome students, who are more likely to have library cards, visit museums, and improve their reading skills over the summer.

A widely cited longitudinal study by Johns Hopkins sociology professor Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson, found summer learning loss responsible for about two-thirds of the 9th grade achievement gap between low-income and more advantaged students.

BELL ran three types of programs at Title I schools in the summer of 2014.  Most of the students, about 7,000, participated in a full-day program that ran five days a week and included breakfast and lunch.

The mornings were filled with math and literacy classes taught by credentialed teachers.  Afternoons had kid-friendly, fun activities in the arts, sciences, and athletics, including robotics, dance, digital music production, drama, karate, creative writing, tennis, Japanese, and character and leadership development. 

"We're transforming what used to be thought of as summer school into a richer summer learning experience that blends the best of academic instruction with the camp-like enrichment and community engagement activities that are increasingly absent from the school day," said BELL spokesman Michael Sikora in a phone call with Education Week.

Fridays were set aside for mentoring, introducing students to college and career paths through field trips, community service projects, and guest speakers.

The programs run about $1,500 per student, but in all but one district the cost was fully covered through Title I funds, grants, and donations. 

Clark attributes much of the success of the program to the combination of rigorous academics and a social-emotional component, which gives the students more confidence that stays with them into the next school year.

"It's rare to find a program that focuses on both of these and does both well," Clark said.

The district has incorporated some of what it learned during the summer about social-emotional development into its new strategic plan.

Winston-Salem elementary schools, also in North Carolina, participated in BELL's READy Scholars program, organized much like the larger core program, but solely focused in the morning on reading for 3rd grade students who are behind grade level.

Kernersville Elementary in Winston-Salem, where more than three-quarters of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, hosted the program for the first time last summer.  Assistant Principal Jonathan Hegedus said the quality of the materials and the curriculum surpassed his expectations. 

All the students did well, said Hegedus, but "the biggest thing is they loved coming." 

The 65 students enrolled in the program were selected because they had not passed the state's required 3rd grade reading proficiency test. Not all of them passed the test after going through the program, in part because some students scored as low as 5-percent or 10-percent on the exam where 70 percent is passing, but they all improved, said Hegedus.

He was also glad to see that when the new school began this fall, teachers reported that the students were doing better and had more confidence. 

"Some of them were already feeling inferior because they had to go to summer school or because they didn't pass the test," Hegedus explained. "You don't want them to be defeated at such a young age."

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