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July 14, 2009

Department of Ed encourages summer learning programs



By DUANE M. ELLING

Every year across the country, kids on summer break from school look forward to days spent swimming and skateboarding, building tree forts and lemonade stands, and catching the ice cream truck before it passes by.

But a recent video broadcast, hosted by the US Department of Education (ED), highlighted another summer tradition that is anything but fun and games.

Summer Learning Programs: Preventing the Slide, Promoting Achievement explored what researchers call the “summer slide,” the loss of academic knowledge and skills that many young people experience during the months-long break between school years.

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High quality, innovative summer programs can help participants achieve gains in academic performance over the summer months.
In addition to staff from several summer learning programs, the broadcast's participants included ED Secretary, Arne Duncan; Ron Fairchild, executive director for the National Center for Summer Learning, a Mott grantee located at the John Hopkins University School of Education; and An-Me Chung, a program officer in Mott’s Pathways Out of Poverty Program.

Studies by the National Center suggest that students who do not participate in summer enrichment and learning activities can lose during the break roughly 22 percent of the knowledge and skills they gained during the previous school year.

The problem is particularly widespread among children from low-income and underserved communities, whose families often cannot afford or do not have access to quality summer programs. For these students, the summer slide can mean a loss of up to 2.5 years in reading capabilities by the time they reach fifth grade.

That loss is “a staggering setback” for these children, said Fairchild, one that has “a huge impact on the growth in the achievement gap” between low-income students and their more economically stable peers. It also has long-term implications for the ability of these children to succeed in high school, college and the workplace.

A key step toward stopping the summer slide, noted Duncan, is the development and launch of high quality programs that take advantage of time outside the traditional school day and year to help children learn, grow and develop.

Such programs, he said, can help children access academic growth and supports, explore and discover their personal interests, and “help them visualize and really understand where they’re going next and what it takes to be successful there.”

Fairchild agreed, noting that high quality, innovative summer programs can help participants “actually achieve gains in academic performance over the summer months ... so they hit the ground running coming back to school in the fall.”

“Parents really need to be advocates for their kids, they need to go to their superintendent, go to their principal, go to their parks and rec and say ‘Why don’t we have these programs in our community?’"One of several such programs highlighted in the broadcast is Redhound Enrichment Program in rural southeastern Kentucky. Staff there works with local partners to provide a range of structured activities that, according to Red Hound Program Director, Karen West, “takes a whole child approach to academics, enrichments, character education and fitness components. We seek to meet the needs of both the community and the school.”

Results suggest that more than half of Redhound’s participants demonstrate important academic gains, including improved math and reading performance by at least one letter grade.

Helping communities achieve these types of outcomes has long been a key interest of Mott. Since the mid-1930s, the Foundation has supported opportunities for children and families to learn and grow, both inside and outside the classroom. In 1997, Mott joined with ED in launching the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Initiative, which helps school districts to fund community learning centers. And in 2002, the Foundation began supporting the development of statewide and national networks focused on issues of afterschool.

The Foundation also supported this year's launch of "A New Day for Learning," a national, three-year demonstration exploring how communities can better integrate learning into the summer, afterschool and traditional school day calenders.

Mott grantmaking related to afterschool, including A New Day for Learning, has totaled $4.1 million since 2006.

Chung, like Duncan and Fairchild, noted the critical roles that parents play in calling for high quality summer programs and putting the brakes on the summer slide.

“Parents really need to be advocates for their kids, they need to go to their superintendent, go to their principal, go to their parks and rec and say ‘Why don’t we have these programs in our community?’ And find those programs and advocate for their kids, to give them those kinds of summer learning experiences year ‘round that they need.”