Struggling students give up break to get a head start on school year

Closing learning gaps

August 02, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

This summer, 16-year-old Taurean Johnson has been learning to like school, trust the teachers he once "sassed" and think about college instead of trucking school.

School won't start until Aug. 27, but he and 80 other rising freshmen at Annapolis High School have sacrificed sleeping late in favor of three weeks of Internet research, poetry writing and lessons in fractions and probabilities. The students were also linked with school teachers and staff members who will serve as mentors - there to help with everything from finding lockers to grappling with peer pressure.

The program at Annapolis High, which ends today, is among dozens like it in school systems around the region to stem an educational phenomenon dubbed "summer slide."

Research shows that children, particularly those from low-income families, slip in reading and math over the summer if they don't receive appropriate enrichment to reinforce school lessons. The findings have grabbed attention in Washington, where Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama are co-sponsoring a bill that would, among other things, grant $100 million to five states selected by the U.S. secretary of education to fund summer programs for children from disadvantaged families.

"Everyone would expect an athlete or a musician's performance to suffer if they didn't practice. The research suggests the same is true for students and their academic work," said Ron Fairchild, executive director for the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University. "We know, through research, that students who don't practice lose ground every summer. Those losses are cumulative and grow the achievement gap that schools are working so hard to erase."

The latest study from Johns Hopkins, which tracked 325 Baltimore students from first grade to age 22, found that by the end of the ninth grade, students from disadvantaged homes performed more than three grade levels below their peers in higher socio-economic families on reading comprehension tests. Two-thirds of that gap, Hopkins sociologist Karl L. Alexander found, was attributable to the lack of adequate summer enrichment in the early years. By the time the same students graduated, the disadvantaged students were performing six grade levels below their peers.

"That time out of school really is a liability for low-income or disadvantaged students," said Alexander, lead researcher on the study that was published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review. "Every way we've looked at it, we see very consequential long-term effects of these summer experiences."

Emboldened by such research, a growing number of school systems invite certain students - those struggling to pass state math and reading tests or with poor attendance and behavior - to get a several-weeks head start on the school year in hopes they will need less review and remedial work.

In Howard County this summer, 2,100 kindergartners through eighth graders spent 19 days last month getting 160 minutes of daily intense reading and math instruction. In Baltimore, 2,000 students at 12 schools participated in an intensive six-week program to boost reading, writing and math skills using creative methods, including chess. In Baltimore County, 13 elementary and two middle schools invited 1,500 students to improve literacy and math in a six-week program designed to slow the summer backslide.

Though most programs are geared to the younger children in elementary school, there is a new crop of initiatives such as the one at Annapolis High designed for older students. Gradually, educators are recognizing the programs can ease the academic slump that sometimes comes with the move between elementary to middle school, or the shift from middle to high school.

That's the case in Anne Arundel schools, where 216 students spent three weeks in six middle and four high schools. The programs helped reinforce key reading and math concepts and gave students time to set goals for their new schools, meet teachers and develop study skills that could help them survive the next grade.

At Annapolis High - where another year of low marks on the state tests might lead to a state takeover - staff members have worked through the summer on a strategy to sharply raise test scores and boost attendance and graduation rates, especially among black male students, half of whom do not graduate in four years. The school has done this without nearly half of its longest-serving employees, who resigned rather than reapply for their jobs after Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell required an overhaul in January.

The school's salvation rests on its success with students such as Johnson.

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