Close to Home: Avoiding the usual summer learning loss

  • Jovani Aguilera, 14, constructs cardboard furniture at the Comstock Maker Camp in Santa Rosa on June 27, 2013. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

California public schools have for many years offered only minimal learning opportunities during summer.

Summer school has come to mean essentially makeup classes that carry with them the stigma of "remediation." This situation is a product of a faltering economy and the misguided belief by the state and federal government that a 180-day school year is sufficient to educate our children today.

The irony is that with so much emphasis placed on testing over the past decade this has not become a major issue sooner, because low-test scores can now be so clearly linked to what has come to be called "summer learning loss."

There has been significant research that backs up a startling conclusion: During the summer break, few students experience educational gains, some show no loss, but many experience a significant loss of skills, particularly in math and language.

Summer learning loss can be directly correlated to family income. It is also cumulative, which further exacerbates the so called "achievement gap." Public education in California is currently focusing more resources on disadvantaged students with its new school funding formula, but regardless of the new focus, the long summer break disadvantages many students, making it impossible to bring the desired leveling of student achievement in a 180-day school year.

Summer should be about changing the routine. It is a time for more personalized learning, creativity and recreating. However, how time is structured varies greatly among students. While some take educational vacations, read and participate in a variety of physical activities, others passively "hang out." Summer learning-loss is cumulative, and the habits of passivity that correlate with it affect performance in the regular school year as well. The tradeoffs for not keeping our students engaged in the summer are huge.

There is a growing realization that we need a comprehensive response to summer learning-loss. The National Summer Learning Association is addressing this on a national level, and many school districts throughout the country are designing creative, albeit incremental, solutions to sustain and further learning over the summer months.

Schools throughout the nation have already begun to push back against the remedial summer school model. Many of these new programs combine fun activities and academics and often use the word "camp" in their description. Astronomy might be combined with hiking and outdoor education. Bicycle repair and safety could be combined with local geography. Swimming and water safety could be paired with the ecology of a river.

There needs to be a minimum of six weeks of summer activities available for all students. The current lack of funding should not dissuade school districts from seeking creative solutions for the development of summer programs. Title I and school improvement grants are existing sources of possible revenue. School districts might also partner with groups that already offer summer activities such as libraries, park departments and youth-oriented nonprofits. School districts collaborating with business, labor groups and service organizations might be able to generate a variety of summer enrichment activities and/or programs.

Santa Rosa City Schools, for example, has benefited by a generous donation from Dale Dougherty of Maker Media that has allowed the district to offer a summer enrichment program for the past three years at Comstock Middle School called "Summer Maker Camp." It accommodates about 80 students and has been tremendously popular, as demonstrated by outstanding attendance. Summer Maker Camp is a hands-on program that uses inquiry to teach science and math.

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