`Summer slide' still uphill fight


Problem: Experts continue to debate how to solve the `academic atrophy' that especially afflicts poor children.

March 24, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THEY CALL IT the "summer learning gap," the "summer slide" and, in fancy circles, "academic atrophy."

By whatever name, it's the decline in academic skills experienced by some students during the traditional 2 1/2 -month summer vacation. While middle-class kids read books and have all kinds of cultural experiences during the summer - a few actually converse with adults - poor kids "essentially tread water," says Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander, who has been researching the summer slide for 22 years.

Poor kids and better-off kids progress at about the same pace during the school year, says Alexander, but the summer learning gap widens as children move through the early grades. The largest losses are in the first two summers - the time when kids are learning to read.

"It's a summer story, it's an out-of-school story," says Alexander, who, along with his Hopkins colleagues, has been tracking the academic progress of Baltimore children since 1982. It's one of the longest-running such studies in the history of academic research.

There are two ways to reverse the summer slide. One is to give poor kids stimulating summer experiences in schools and camps. Summer school doesn't have to be drill and kill, dull and "remedial," an awful word. It doesn't have to be a bland attachment to the regular school year.

With federal money pouring into summer and after-school programs (prompted in part by the No Child Left Behind Act), summer schooling has become something of a science - and an industry. A conference on summer learning attracted nearly 300 people to Baltimore last week. There's a Center for Summer Learning at Hopkins. There are even textbooks and workbooks designed to "prepare students for the grade ahead."

The other way to reverse the summer slide is to rearrange the school calendar so that kids aren't on the streets for 10 weeks every summer. Build your own calendar. Imagine a 192-day school year with 48 four-day weeks, two weeks' vacation at Christmas and two weeks in the summer.

Or imagine a calendar of four 45-day terms, separated by three brief "inter-sessions" (in October, January and April) and the month of July. It was the schedule launched with great fanfare and the enthusiastic support of Gov. William Donald Schaefer at Baltimore's Robert W. Coleman Elementary School 10 years ago this August.

But year-round schools haven't caught on in Maryland. The idea doesn't resonate in the suburbs. Year-round schooling interferes with family vacations and disrupts tourism and the multimillion-dollar summer camp industry.

Nor has the Coleman experiment caught on. It hasn't even nudged the West Baltimore school from the state's list of poorly performing schools. "There's no hard data that show we're doing any better than other schools" with traditional schedules, says Principal Brenda Allen. But she says her staff likes the schedule. For one thing, they don't have to spend a week or more each fall reviewing material "forgotten" over the summer.

"The original idea had merit and a lot of support," says Gary Thrift, the Coleman area executive officer, "but it never caught on." One reason: Baltimore school officials, famous for launching programs without evaluating them, never conducted a scientific case study of the Coleman experiment. They had a 10-year opportunity to compare the school's year-round approach with a "control" school on a traditional schedule.

And blew it.

City school's teachers get tasty reward for cleanup

While their pupils enjoyed an unexpected holiday Monday, teachers at Baltimore's Mount Washington Elementary School spent the day cleaning up the damage left by weekend vandals: shattered glass, overturned computers and desks, a general mess.

Yesterday they were rewarded: flowers for every classroom and a sumptuous lunch served to all 40 staff members by the nearby Whole Foods Market.

Md. is tops in increasing involvement in AP exams

Maryland has done better than any other state in increasing the involvement of high school students in the rigorous Advanced Placement testing program, according to newly released data from the College Board. Also, among states with significant minority populations, Maryland had the highest percentage increase last year in the number of minority students taking AP exams - 41 percent in public schools.

Overall, 36 percent of Maryland 11th- and 12th-graders took one or more AP exams last year - the highest percentage of any state. Established by the College Board some 40 years ago, the AP program consists of college-level courses in 21 subject areas that high school students may substitute for the regular curriculum.

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