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In summer, kids needn’t take a vacation from learning

Resource type: News

The Indianapolis Star |

by Bill Stanczykiewicz

Summer slides are supposed to be found on playgrounds and in water parks. But new research warns of a “summer slide” that has life-long negative effects on low-income children and youth.

According to the Center for Summer Learning, two-thirds of the academic achievement gap suffered by low-income students results from a lack of high-quality activities during the summer months.

Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander recruited 800 Baltimore students and monitored their academic progress from first grade through adulthood.

“Better-off children were more likely to go to the library over the summertime and take books home,” Alexander said. “They were more likely to engage in a variety of enrichment experiences such as attending museums, concerts and field trips. They were more likely to take out-of-town vacations, be involved in organized sports activities or take lessons, such as swimming or gymnastics lessons. Overall, they had a more expansive realm of experiences.”

As a result, Alexander found that students with access to those experiences enjoyed academic gains during the summer. Conversely, students not engaged in these activities — primarily from low-income families —- lost two months of academic progress. That difference, when added up over 13 school years, produces two-thirds of the nation’s academic achievement gap.

Ron Fairchild, a former classroom teacher and Boys & Girls Club executive, now directs the Center for Summer Learning. “If an athlete or a musician doesn’t practice, they’ll lose ground,” he said. “The same is true for kids and school. If kids are not engaged in ongoing learning activities during the summer months, they’ll lose ground.”

Low-income children especially are at risk. “In high-poverty communities, families don’t have the resources to send their kids to camps and other organized activities,” Fairchild said.

Parents should now be finalizing plans for their children’s summer activities. Yet surveys conducted by the Center for Summer Learning reveal that 60 percent of all parents struggle to find high-quality summer programs.

That is why Fairchild advocates for an increase in the number and the quality of summer youth programs.

“We have these wonderful views of summer being about fun and recreation,” Fairchild said. “But the reality is those activities also have an impact on learning, and not all kids have access to those types of summer activities. If we don’t increase and improve summer programs, especially for low-income children, we’re only perpetuating the achievement gap.”

Fairchild recommends that parents ask their child’s school about high-quality summer programs offered in the local community. The basics include providing a safe place for children with proper nutrition and strong adult supervision.

“Program staff need to be intentional about academic supports during the summer months, but not just academic activities and instruction,” Fairchild said. “A wide range of enrichment activities and physical and recreation activities can stimulate learning and reinforce academic skills.”
The center’s summer advice is useful for all parents, regardless of income. Fairchild suggests enrolling children in summer reading programs offered by local public libraries. These free programs offer incentives — small prizes like ice cream coupons and fun art supplies — as a reward for reading more books.
Parents can create field trips by visiting parks and museums. Fairchild recommends taking kids grocery shopping and devising math questions based on items in the cart. Children should be encouraged to shut off the television, turn off the computer and play outside. The outdoors also offer opportunities for community clean-ups and other service projects.

Two weeks before school starts, Fairchild advises parents to start gradually returning to structured schedules, including bedtime, helping children prepare for the school day.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed agrees. “All those things help with the decision-making, critical thinking, problem-solving, all the things that help our kids,” she said.

Fairchild added, “I don’t think as a society we fully appreciate all that can happen for kids through summer activities and high-quality summer programs. We can’t afford to let boredom seep in or let kids live lazy, hazy days of summer.”

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Center for Summer Learning