Study-free summer is fading away

Parents and programs try to keep kids from forgetting their lessons

June 30, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The lazy, hazy days of summer aren't so lazy for Alexander Jay Pick and his sister Lindsey Rose.

Sure, there's time for swimming, baseball and hanging out with neighborhood pals. But almost every day, Alexander and Lindsey also are working with their mother to get ready for third grade and kindergarten.

Reading. Spelling. Penmanship. Math. Science experiments. A summer's worth of learning activities in thick booklets handed out by Howard County's Deep Run Elementary School -- as well as library visits and occasional drills on the family's computers.

"Ten weeks is such a long time to do nothing," says Christine Pick, of Columbia. "I want them to stay sharp, so they don't forget what they've learned."

Increasingly, parents of children at or above grade level are finding ways to avoid what's often called the "summer slide" or the "forgetting curve" -- the falloff that forces most teachers to spend a month to six weeks in review each fall to bring students back up to speed.

"Kids forget their facts," says Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri who recently reviewed 39 "summer learning loss" studies.

"The summer loss is equal to about one month on a grade level scale. Parents are seeing this loss in their kids, and they want to do something to stop it."

Respecting the traditionally carefree nature of summer, parents are saying they don't want year-round schools for their children -- just year-round learning.

And they want it for more than just the students traditionally targeted for summer education, the gifted and those who are lagging.

Summer study for all

So grade-level students are increasingly spending part of their summers with home instruction and in private tutoring and an endless variety of education-oriented programs.

More and more, parents are calling on their children's schools for direction, begging for activity packets like those offered by Deep Run.

"We only handed out the packets to the parents who wanted them, and more than half of them did," says Deep Run Principal Fran Donaldson.

"More requests are still coming in."

The rush to summertime learning is evident at a school supply store, Learning How, where manager Lee Blaisdell can't stock the shelves fast enough with books on phonics, spelling, writing and multiplication.

While teachers make up 70 percent of the Catonsville store's business during school months, as many as two-thirds of its May, June and July customers are parents looking to create summer study plans.

Even computer services are catering to summer learning.

The FamilyEducation Network -- an Internet network for parents and educators -- offers such online learning activities as a summer book club and instructional units on the summer solstice and oceans.

"We expected to see a drop-off in visits to our Web site during the summer," says Elizabeth Holthaus, vice president of content programming. Instead, she says, "we're still getting more than 1 million hits a month."

Keeping up with Joneses

The demand for summer learning might be feeding itself as parents try to keep up with the Joneses next door -- out of fear that their children may fall behind during a book-free summer while the neighbors' kids keep learning.

"Zachary needs to be ready for school," Sophia Arrington, of Arbutus, says of her fifth-grader. "We can't afford to let him spend time not learning."

This summer, Zachary -- who attends Halethorpe Elementary in Baltimore County -- is working an hour a week on his math skills with tutor Janine Seadler of Learning Home Inc. Then he's practicing by helping to make change at the cash register of his parents' catering business.

Parental concerns that other children might move ahead during the summer is legitimate, according to Johns Hopkins University professor Karl Alexander.

The sociologist studied Baltimore children and found that while many continue learning, others -- particularly those from low-income families -- are just holding steady.

"Summer slide might not be quite the right image," Alexander says. "Some students move ahead and improve while others coast during the summer, and when they get back to school the gap has widened."

Programs away from home

The summer learning isn't limited to at-home activities. Throughout the area, programs ranging from private tutoring to summer school are growing.

Anne Arundel County's summer learning academy -- a month of practice in language arts and math -- is filled with 1,100 elementary-age students at 10 schools.

At Sylvan Learning Centers across the country, more than a third of the clients come just during the summer months. The number of summer students increased 22 percent from 1997 to 1998 and is expected to increase again this year.

"Parents have become much more astute about the opportunities that summer can provide," says Richard E. Bavaria, Sylvan's vice president of education and a former top Baltimore County school administrator.

"Up to 50 percent of what's learned during the school year can be lost, and parents know they have to act not to let that happen."

Preventing the slip

Such parents include Ellie Myers, of Roland Park, who doesn't want her sons to slip this summer. "They're both doing fine," she says, "but I've seen them slip before, especially on math facts."

So Christopher and Charlie -- both on grade level at the Ruxton Country School -- are studying at Sylvan's Towson center six hours per week this summer, reviewing decimals, multiplying large numbers and brushing up on division.

Handwriting practice and the school's mandatory reading assignments are at home.

"Sometimes, I wish I didn't have to go, but once I'm here, it's pretty fun," says Charlie, 11 and entering the sixth grade.

"I guess I wouldn't want to sit around and not do any learning all summer. That would be too boring."

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