No vacation from learning

May 28, 2002|By Ron Fairchild

AS THE regular school year winds to close, an unprecedented number of the Baltimore City public school system students are preparing to attend the district's mandatory summer school program.

Increased recognition of the potential of structured opportunities for summer learning, strict standards for promotion and the decision to use a portion of funds from the recently passed Thornton legislation for summer school suggest that this year's attendance will reach record numbers.

While the school district's program provides critical assistance to students in danger of being retained because of low grades and standardized test scores, there still remains a tremendous need for increased resources for summer learning programs for all students. For far too many young people in Baltimore, summer vacation unfortunately means a three-month holiday from constructive learning activities and from practicing the skills they need to be successful in school and life.

In the case of summer learning loss, research provides a footnote for what is accepted as common knowledge - students experience significant learning slippages when they do not engage in educational activities over the summer.

It's difficult to imagine a professional musician or athlete whose performance would not suffer after a three-month break from practice. Yet that's precisely what happens to most students who do not engage in enrichment activities during the summer.

Generally, all students score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer. Overall, children experience an average summer learning loss across reading and mathematics of about one month. The largest losses occur in mathematical computation (2.6 months) and reading comprehension (2.4 months).

Studies also confirm that low-income children experience far greater summer learning losses than their higher-income peers.

On average, children from low-income families lose nearly three months of grade-level equivalency, compared with one month lost by middle-income children when reading and math performance are combined. The cumulative effect of summer learning differences is a primary cause of widening achievement gaps between students of lower and higher socioeconomic levels. That's why it's particularly important to be proactive in providing summer enrichment programs at an early age and continuing them throughout a child's educational experience.

Constructive learning activities provided by parents, schools and community-based organizations during non-school hours are essential to children's school success. About 40 percent of the waking hours of children 6 to 18 years old are discretionary - that is, not committed to other activities such as school, homework, meals, chores or working for pay. By contrast, young people spend only about 32 percent of their waking hours in school.

All students, regardless of income, should have opportunities to fill their summer vacations with high-quality programs and activities that meet their educational and developmental needs. We need more structured summer enrichment programs that infuse education into traditional sports and recreational activities.

Our students need extra time to practice academic skills while having fun this summer. Regardless of whether they participate in a formal summer program, young people need to engage in everyday activities such as cooking and shopping that can reinforce important academic skills.

Summer is an ideal time for young people to visit museums, participate in arts programs, discover new talents, read books for pleasure and become involved in community service. All of these activities contribute to better educational outcomes and lower incidences of at-risk behaviors.

If we are truly serious about closing achievement gaps and ensuring that "no child is left behind," summer enrichment programs need to be a significant and central part of Baltimore's school reform efforts.

We need to continue to fund programs for students who have fallen behind. Equally important, we need to provide a similar investment in summer enrichment programs that can help prevent failure in school and enable all of our children to achieve lasting academic and personal success.

Ron Fairchild is the executive director of Teach Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins University.

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