Bright Futures an antidote to summer learning loss

As middle- and high-school students at the Ypsilanti (Michigan) Community Schools dig out their backpacks and prepare to return to the classroom in the fall, a good number will hit the books with little to no loss of learning over the summer months, thanks to Bright Futures.

A six-week summer learning and enrichment experience supported by the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) initiative through Eastern Michigan University’s Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Communities, Bright Futures also operates an afterschool program during the school year. Serving about 45 middle- and high-school students at each of 15 sites in the Ypsilanti, Romulus and Wayne-Westland school districts, the summer program keeps students from low-income neighborhoods safe, productive and less vulnerable to summer learning loss.

“Most of the students we serve really need this program,” said Lynn Malinoff, director of Bright Futures for six years. “The districts we serve are economically challenged.”

She says that without the program, many students would be isolated, bored and unsupervised.

“I like Bright Futures because I get to meet new people and be who I am,” said Jazlyn Johnston, one of a table full of middle-school students editing photographs as part of the program’s Photovoice project, which is designed to enhance critical thinking and writing skills.

Taleah Johnson, a seventh-grader who has participated in Bright Futures afterschool and summer programs for two years, agrees.

“I’m not really a social person, so Bright Futures helps me engage better,” she said. “I love the afterschool program; it gives me a reason to go to school.”

Armani Madison-Owens, a basketball player who joined Bright Futures in his junior year of high school to keep his grade-point average high enough to remain on the team, stayed with the program year round because his grades improved significantly, as did his confidence in his academic abilities.

“They really don’t realize how much they’re learning, because it’s disguised by a lot of different activities,” said Will Spotts, the site coordinator for Bright Futures at Ypsilanti Middle School. Spotts, a certified science teacher — each site is directed by a certified teacher to encourage a seamless transition between the regular school day and out-of-school time — left the classroom to take a “sabbatical” with the afterschool and summer program. The sabbatical has lasted several years longer than he anticipated

“I’m digging it,” he said of Bright Future’s nontraditional, project-based style of teaching and learning.

“A lot of my fellow educators have expressed a concern that school is becoming a place where fun goes to die,” Malinoff said.

“We’ve taken a less traditional path with Bright Futures. We want to create an environment where students feel safe when they take a chance, try new things.”

After 30 years as a teacher, consultant and grant program developer for the Wayne Westland Community Schools, Malinoff opted to use her grant-writing skills and her doctorate in educational leadership to help EMU deliver and test an afterschool and summer program model based on positive youth-development principles that address the whole child.

“If you ask most people to think back to a time when they really grew and learned, it’s almost always when they’ve struggled, when they’ve taken a risk or gotten something wrong and tried again,” Malinoff said.

“It’s increasingly difficult to teach and learn that way in current classrooms.”

According to a 2011 research brief published by Michigan State University, programming made possible through the Michigan 21st CCLC Before- and After-School Summer Expansion Grant program is having a positive effect on participant’s academic performance and behavior.

Cover of the publication Strategic Roadmap for Funding in Tough Times.
A new report from the National Summer Learning Association, funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, provides a guide for educators interested in obtaining funding to provide meaningful programming in the summer and after school.
Overall, almost one-third of the students in programs targeting academics substantially improved their reading performance and 76% improved or stayed stable. Forty percent of the students’ math scores improved, with 77% improved or staying stable. Students in grades 7-9 were particularly likely to make gains in the area of mathematics.

Overall, almost one-third of the students in programs targeting academics substantially improved their reading performance and 76% improved or stayed stable. Forty percent of the students’ math scores improved, with 77% improved or staying stable. Students in grades 7-9 were particularly likely to make gains in the area of mathematics.

Maintaining a stimulating, high-quality afterschool and summer program that helps build the elusive “grit factor” that is essential to academic and personal success is a tough job. It requires continuous staff training, reflection and feedback. Sites and activities must be monitored and evaluated — and partnering with parents, youth-serving nonprofits and local universities is critical, Malinoff says.

And innovation requires support.

Funding through the 21st CCLC initiative mandates this type of creativity and accountability, and Malinoff is grateful for the resources the program makes available.

Approximately 1.6 million children and youth in nearly 10,500 schools and community centers across the country are served through the 21st CCLC initiative during the summer months and after school. In 1998, the Mott Foundation pledged $55 million to help expand the federal program and increase the quality of local programs. To date, the Foundation’s support for 21st CCLC has totaled more than $168.5 million.

“It gives us the opportunity to educate differently and demonstrate what works,” Malinoff said of 21st CCLC. “Students benefit and the parents love this program.”

But at the end of the day, what may be one of the most valuable legacies is the corps of educators who internalize and share the alternative teaching methods they’ve learned through programs like Bright Futures, says Malinoff.

“My staff works magic,” she said. “For me, the most sustainable aspect of the program is sending these educators out into schools. Given the chance, I’m certain they will be able to lead the field of education in producing needed change.”

Getting to Work on Summer Learning: Recommended Practices for Success

Research shows low-income students suffer disproportionate learning loss over the summer and because those losses accumulate over time, they contribute substantially to the achievement gap between low- and higher-income children. The Wallace Foundation is funding a five-year demonstration project to examine whether summer learning programs can reduce summer learning loss and promote achievement gains. “Getting to Work on Summer Learning,” the second in a series of reports on the project, draws on emerging lessons from six school districts in the study — Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas, Duval County (Florida), Pittsburgh, and Rochester (New York) — that offer full-day programs for five to six weeks free of charge to large numbers of elementary students.

The report synthesizes the key lessons learned about how to establish and sustain effective programs. The most emphatic recommendation is to start planning early, no later than January, and include both district and summer site leaders in the process. Many problems identified by the researchers — from weak teacher training to ineffective transportation — could be traced to a rushed planning process.

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • Adopting a commercially available curriculum.
  • Establishing enrollment deadlines.
  • Ensuring sufficient time on academics.
  • Selecting enrichment providers with qualified staff experienced in behavior management.

To manage costs, the authors suggest designing the program with costs in mind — by hiring staff based on projected daily attendance rather than number of enrollees, for example, and by restricting the number of sites to control administrative costs.

The report is available free for download online.