Staying Ahead

Summer learning loss can be prevented by using creative fun to exercise children's reading and math skills

Family Matters

June 26, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Carlos Gray was less than thrilled when he figured out that the Northeast Baltimore camp program his mother runs was trying to sneak school work into fun.

But by the end of last summer, after answering questions like "What's 5 times 5?" every time he caught a beach ball from a friend, Carlos knew his multiplication tables and was ready to start third grade.

The beach-ball math game is one way that camps, parents and school systems are trying to fight the "summer slide." Research shows that without reinforcement over the summer of what they've learned, students can lose up to two months of skills in reading and math by the time they head back to school in the fall.

Over time, summer learning loss can cause children to fall chronically behind. It's said to explain part of the disparity in academic performance between children from middle- and high-income families -- who can attend pricey themed camps and take field trips and vacations to destinations rich in history -- and their lower-income peers.

In math, however, it's not unusual for students to lose two months' worth of competency over the summer, regardless of their family's socioeconomic status.

"If kids don't use it, they're at risk of losing it," said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University.

Day camps have multiplied, and deepened their offerings, to address both learning loss and the needs of working parents. There are 5,000 day camps in the U.S., a 90 percent increase in the last 20 years, according to the American Camp Association. But all that activity doesn't come cheap: The cost of such camps across the nation ranges from $75 to $300 a week, the association reports.

In the Baltimore area, students can sharpen lacrosse skills at a camp in Gambrills, spend a week shadowing zookeepers at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, and learn etiquette at a regional program called "Manners Can Be Fun!" Jamillah Nasir will send her 7- and 8-year-old daughters, Rakaya and Imani, to a month-long Brazilian carnival camp in Baltimore that teaches capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that mixes self-defense with African dance and acrobatics.

"I wanted them to be able to know all of the cultures of people of African descent," said Nasir, who lives in Edmondson Village and home-schools the children. "We read and talk about these things all the time."

At Fitness Fun & Games, the Northeast Baltimore camp where Carlos Gray's mother, Angie Gray, is assistant director, academics have taken a more formal role in the last three years. Now a city teacher, she spends part of each morning going over lessons with students. But they have fun, too: Cookie baking, for example, turns into a study of measurements.

Carlos, 9, has to admit he kind of enjoys activities like "math hopscotch."

"It's kind of like recess," he said.

Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology at Duke University who has studied summer learning loss, says math is the most important area for parents and programs to focus on over the summer. "Math practice is not naturally embedded in the child's environment, so parents need to make a conscious effort," he said.

Cooper advises parents not only to help their children review the past year, but to look forward to the next. They should visit the school to get a preview of what will be covered early in the fall, and let students know what to expect. Parents should target a child's strengths as well as weaknesses, Cooper said. They might hire a tutor to help a boy who is behind in math, but also send him to acting camp to nurture his love of the theater.

Sometimes summer learning is more fun if kids teach each other. At Fitness Fun & Games, students take turns playing teacher to review what they've learned. Jamillah Nasir has hired a 10-year-old math whiz who is a family friend to run math drills with her girls twice a week.

Baltimore school and city officials are trying to fight the slide by increasing school-sponsored summer programs and offering tools like the Mayor's Math Challenge, a series of practice problems that students can work on with their parents at home. They're also offering a summer "bridge" program designed to help students make the important transitions from kindergarten to first grade, fifth to sixth grade and eighth to ninth grade.

"We don't want to slide," Mayor Martin O'Malley told a group of elementary students as he launched the challenge earlier this month. "We want to accelerate."

But the math challenge illustrates the difficulty of keeping families focused on school work when school is out. Participation last year -- the first year of the program -- was not what was hoped for, partly because some parents had a difficult time explaining the problems, said Erin Coleman, after-school strategist with the Safe and Sound campaign. This year, there's a "working together guide" to help parents, and problems are divided into grade levels.

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