Summer learning loss widens the achievement gap. Here’s how to change that
August 11, 2016
By: William Whitaker
Most students celebrate being out of school for the summer, but hitting pause on learning and structure for just a few months can have big consequences. Evidence shows that high-quality summer learning programs set students up for success in school, in college, and in life. This is especially true for low –income, minority students.
Investing in our children’s education and safety should include providing smarter summers.
For many D.C.-area students and families, summer learning programs are a luxury that’s out of reach. After schools close in June, parents struggle with finding safe, affordable ways to keep their children engaged. Consider that in D.C., a family with two school-age children can expect to pay an average $2,597 per month for child care, according to calculations from the Economic Policy Institute. Summer camps can also pose a significant financial burden.
Added to this is the impact that summer break can have on student achievement. Experts have concluded that students lose one month of learning during each summer vacation, which can take a hefty toll on test scores and academic performance.
This reality hits youth living in low-income communities the hardest, contributing to the growing achievement gap; their families are often unable to provide constant adult supervision during work and evening hours or afford enriching summer camps. In fact, by fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave low-income students up to three years behind their peers. And a child’s summer learning experiences during elementary school years can even impact whether that child earns a high school diploma and continues on to college.
According to education experts in the field such as the After School Alliance, this constant supervision and engagement by adults during the summer and after school hours is more likely to prevent children and teens from abusing alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, engaging in criminal behaviors, receiving poor grades; and dropping out of school. This structure fills the summer learning void for the D.C. middle schoolers who need it most.
This is the problem we decided to tackle when we founded the Washington Jesuit Academy (WJA) – a tuition-free, academically demanding middle school for boys – to improve the odds and outcomes of at-risk young men of all religions.
The families whose children attend WJA cannot afford the summer camps and enrichment activities that prevent summer learning loss among higher-income youth. That’s why WJA designed a new school calendar with these realities in mind. For 11 hours a day, 11 months out of the year, WJA pairs rigorous academics with character education, nutrition, counseling services and mentoring, providing our young men with a safe, disciplined school structure.
The crux of our extended-year structure is – without a doubt – our six-week Summer Enrichment Program, which promotes school engagement and prevents summer learning loss among a population that has been devastatingly underserved. And, importantly, the program does not keep students indoors, entirely focused on academics. We begin the school day with two to three hours of language arts and math lessons, followed by enrichments ranging from art classes and field trips to volunteer work and athletics.
As the founding president of WJA, I can attest to the power of combining academic instruction with enrichment beyond the classroom — all with a commitment to service learning and character formation — can foster interest in school, build trust among classmates and teachers, and promote positive attitudes about school that last year-round.
Take Allen. for example who demonstrates why our students can’t afford to miss the summer. When we met him a few months ago, it was clear that he had been significantly under-served by his elementary school. Right away, his teachers could tell he was an incredibly hard worker, but lacked the academic foundation he would need to thrive in middle school and beyond. Because he is at the Academy this summer, he was been able to spend extra time with his teachers, work hard to catch up in key subject areas, and gain a little confidence before needing to adjust to the rigor and pace of the traditional school year. Brandon’s story is just one snapshot of the positive outcomes from summer learning.
These programs do not have to keep students indoors, entirely focused on academics. Each year, our students take advantage of the rich cultural resources in our city, from a multi-day program at the U.S. Botanic Garden to field trips to Smithsonian museums and other spots. Our schedule allows for new clubs, activities, guest speakers, and service projects. Summer is the perfect time for this enrichment.
It seems so simple, but these summer interventions can have extraordinary and lasting impacts on students while preventing months of learning loss, which can accumulate over years. And students aren’t the only ones who benefit. For parents, it means peace of mind that their child is engaged in safe, meaningful and educational activities. And for teachers, it means less remediation, more time to focus on new material, and consistently engaged students.
Given our nation’s growing graduation and skills gap among young adults from low-income communities, school in the summer has never been more urgent. And we all have a role to play to ensure that all of our children have the same opportunities for school engagement. Because our children — and our community — just can’t afford to miss summer learning.
William Whitaker is the founding president of the Washington Jesuit Academy in Washington, D.C.