Student Well-Being

Creativity Drives Programs to Prevent ‘Summer Slide’

By Nora Fleming — July 12, 2011 7 min read
Tony Brown, 8, plays in New Orleans after taking part in a football camp sponsored by the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. Some cities and districts have found creative ways to provide summer programs in tough fiscal times.
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The lazy days of summer may be an all-too-accurate description for some children this year. But while fiscally challenging times have spelled hardship for summer school, enrichment, and youth-jobs programs in many places, in others the situation is different.

Some cities and school districts have made summer learning a priority, influenced by studies that have found the summer months can be academically caustic for underprivileged students who lack opportunities for enriching and educational experiences. And research released last month by the RAND Corp. suggests that well-designed programs can help combat that “summer slide.”

Through the blending of funding sources and the building of community partnerships, a number of places have managed not only to expand their summer programs, but also have looked past traditional models to develop ones that offer much more.

Targeting Issues

In Baltimore, middle school students had a math problem: In excess of 6,000—more than a third of the 84,000-student district’s entire middle school population—were performing at only the “basic” level in math on standardized state tests.

Linda Eberhart, a former Maryland teacher of the year who is now the executive director of the district’s office of teaching and learning, knew from her classroom years that summer was a time when many students fell behind, but she also thought summer could be a time for bringing students up to proficiency.

Until 2010, the Baltimore district had a summer school program that had proved to have little or no impact on math performance in particular. That changed last summer.

Ms. Eberhart applied for a Title I federal economic-stimulus grant to implement a summer math program to help Baltimore’s low-performing middle schoolers. But just standard summer school wouldn’t be effective, staff members concluded; the program had to be engaging and enriching, as well as academically sound. Project-based learning showing students the practical applications of math by connecting the subject to something relevant seemed to be the solution.

In 2010, some 1,200 6th to 8th graders (of 16,500 others) attended a six-week summer math academy for six hours a day, receiving academic lessons, then working on project-based enrichment activities. The students used math to build robots, later entering them in competitions. Local artists were brought in, and students were taught how math is used to craft jewelry or in other art forms. Olympic champion Michael Phelps even taught a swim lesson on how decimals are important in race times.

Students were tested in the spring, before the program, and on their fall return to school. More than 60 percent were found to have lost no mastery of the material by the start of fall, and 10 percent had actually improved their math skills.

This summer, the size and scope of the program has expanded. Some 2,000 children are enrolled in the middle school math program, of 18,000 total students in Baltimore summer programs. A federal School Improvement Grant has provided science, technology, engineering, and math training for teachers in the lowest-performing elementary schools.

But after this year, the stimulus funding will run out, and the program will have to find money elsewhere.

A New Vision

In Chicago this summer, 6,700 struggling readers in K-2 will start their mornings with read-alouds with their parents, using public library books. Later in the day, they will move on to intensive literacy instruction at 150 of the district’s public schools. At the end of each week, pupils with good attendance will be given a book to keep.

Eric January, 11, lines up with other students during a summer program at the Treme Center.

The K-2 Summer of Reading program is just one of many that the country’s third-largest school district is implementing in its enhanced summer initiatives known collectively as UpGrade. Approximately 95,000 students overall will be served in all of Chicago’s summer programs.

After tracking test scores from spring to fall last year, the district realized that summer learning loss was a significant issue, said Paige Ponder, an officer with Chicago’s office of student support and engagement, and decided to remodel and expand its summer program by providing more engaging and stimulating learning experiences for far more students.

Using Title I dollars, grants, local funding, and stimulus aid, the district has increased its offerings to include programs that help students prepare for kindergarten, transition to middle and high school, enrich and build on skills learned during the school year, and meet district milestones.

Depending on the success of those programs—based on testing before and after the summer program—the district will decide whether to invest more in out-of-school-time programs.

“If we can capture summer as a really rich learning space, rather than a time for stigmatized menial programs, and make headway on summer learning loss, in my mind we will have a very strong case [to continue these programs],” Ms. Ponder said.

City Commitment

Because of long-standing inequities in New Orleans’ offerings for the community and a decline in the number of public sites after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, many children lacked a safe place to go, let alone access to enriching experiences, both after school and in the summer.

Last summer, New Orleans teenagers had no city-supported programming, only seven operating city pools, and about a dozen camps for children younger than 12.

Coach Cornelius "Sneeze" Lazard leads 7- and 8-year-olds in football drills at the Lehman Playground in the Treme neighborhood.

“Our city’s recreation department was broken, and it had been broken many years before Katrina,” said Bobby Garon, the chairman of a new nonprofit foundation raising money for new programs. “There was no quality programming going on in this city.”

With voters’ backing this past fall, New Orleans officials turned the city’s parks and recreation department into an independent body to implement needed changes in program options. Mayor Mitch Landrieu got on board, pledging $10 million this year from the city’s general funds to the newly minted New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, $4 million of which will support youth programs this summer.

The commission also partnered with community-based organizations and schools to provide resources for more staffing, more children, and enhanced offerings.

Given the influx of funding and community partnerships, only a year later, 29 camps are serving more than 4,000 New Orleans children younger than 12, more than 3,000 teenagers are participating in both enrichment and youth-jobs programs, and five more pools have opened. Community organizations will serve an additional 2,000.

Maintaining Offerings

At an Oakland, Calif., school cabinet meeting more than four years ago, Jane Nicholson, the executive director of the district’s complementary-learning department, asked cabinet members to close their eyes and remember what they did in the summer as children, then imagine what the district’s 39,000 children likely experience.

“I might have shamed them,” Ms. Nicholson said.

A majority of the district’s students she was referring to come from minority, low-income families. In the past, they spent their days in unsafe neighborhoods, she said, without anything to do.

The mental imagery was powerful enough to persuade cabinet members to use Title I dollars, district general funds, and later, federal stimulus funding to expand summer “school” to comprehensive programming, beginning in 2008. The number of participating children jumped from 800 mostly high school students to 6,000 K-12 students involved in early-childhood, intervention, bridge, enrichment, specialized, and transition initiatives. District programs have served 6,000 to 8,000 students ever since.

The city also got behind the district’s efforts, leveraging dollars from the city’s Fund for Children and Youth to support school and community summer programs. Grants from the private sector and community partnerships have also enabled Oakland’s summer programming to increase its reach, providing support that will even help pay for regular vision screenings and glasses this fall for elementary children who were found to need them during the summer program.

As in Chicago and Baltimore, stimulus funding helped Oakland’s summer program grow, but Oakland will use the last of that money this summer. Still, the district has found ways to maintain the programs, offered at nearly 56 school sites this summer, given their positive results: Of the 1,250 elementary students sampled last fall, 52 percent were found to be performing at or above benchmark English/language arts scores, compared with 36 percent in the spring.

Uncertain Future

With the federal stimulus funding drying up and most schools still facing trying times with their budgets, the fate of many summer programs is up in the air, according to Jeff Smink, the vice president of policy at the National Summer Learning Association, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that works with schools and organizations to develop high-quality summer programs.

The association has encouraged districts to look to other federal funding streams as well as state and local sources, to sustain their programs.

“We are very optimistic that the results of these programs will make a compelling case to sustain support, and NSLA is eager to work together [with districts] to highlight the impact of innovative summer programs on student achievement,” Mr. Smink said. “But the field may face an even more challenging situation next summer.

Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Creativity Driving Programming to Stave Off the ‘Summer Slide’


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