“Summer slide” and engaging summer school programs

There was a great piece in a recent Education Week that shared some of the work happening ‘cross the country to ensure that kids don’t suffer from “summer slide,” particularly, as the article stated, “underprivileged students who lack opportunities for enriching and educational experiences.” The article follows a RAND report called Making Summer Count that shared that research “has shown that students’ skills and knowledge often deteriorate during the summer months, with low-income students facing the largest losses. Instruction during the summer has the potential to stop these losses and propel students toward higher achievement.”

What was most intriguing to me about the summer programs highlighted in the article is their current state, with their focus on engagement, relevancy, applicability. In Baltimore, for example, project-based learning showed “students the practical applications of math by connecting the subject to something relevant.” They built robots, used math to craft jewelry, and watched as Olympian Michael Phelps used swimming and race times for a lesson on decimals.

The RAND report concurs with this approach; it concluded that “engaging enrichment experiences were also part of a quality program, as summer learning should feel ‘different’ from school-year instruction.” Summer school “providers achieved this goal both by providing enrichment experiences (e.g., fencing, kayaking, swimming) and by designing or selecting academic curricula that differed from that offered during the school year. In Pittsburgh, for example, the curriculum included the use of several different board games and other activities.” In its second year Pittsburgh’s program is called Summer Dreamers Academy, and it’s a five week academic and enrichment program for 5000 students that’s focused on mathematics, reading, and social skills. In Washington Township Schools in Indianapolis, its two-week summer program is called Learning Under the Sun and is full enrichment, as this article shared, “an opportunity for students to spend time in the summer continuing their education, but with greater emphasis on hands-on activities they don’t usually receive in a structured school-year curriculum.”

In this time of tight school district budgets, it’s good to see that some districts are committing money, time, and personnel to summer learning opportunities. The RAND report shared that in Pittsburgh, “four year-round coordinators reported working 60 hours per week during the school year and 80 hours per week during the summer to start the program.”

But why is it that summer school needs to be “different” from the regular school year, as the RAND report stated? Or better put: Why is the regular school year so different from these summer programs? There’s the suggestion that a summer program needs something darn interesting to capture the attention of its students – and that’s not true from September to June? A friend whose son just finished a week-long music camp confided that his son stated to him (and I’m paraphrasing): If the real school year were like this past week at camp, I’d be up and out of the door each morning before you and Mom.

When the school year starts, let’s not forget what makes most summer programs so engaging for students: hands-on, project-based, real-world work. And while it may not be true for all summer programs, those that are held up as high quality programs can engender deep learning in their participants. In the article on the Washington Township program, one teacher helped her students build roller coasters and observed the following about them: “’They’re already thinking at that higher level. They’ve already thought of what steps to take to make it successful, what variables are involved to make things work…They know that mass is going to matter.'” Important realizations for students to make in any science class – whether it happens in the summer or during the school year.

For more information on summer learning, see too the National Summer Learning Association. The sun image came from this high school’s site. The other two pics came from the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Summer Programs site.

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