Innovative Programs Slow the ‘Summer Slide’ for Low-Income Students

At many schools, summer functions as a quiet transitionary period between school years. It’s a time for necessary repairs to be carried out on the school buildings and for teachers and students to take a well-deserved break from the classroom.

But the summer months are also a time when students, embracing the carefree spirit of the warm weather, experience the dreaded ‘summer slide’ that forces most teachers to spend time on remedial teaching when they return to the classrooms at the start of the new school year. And while any student can be susceptible to summer learning loss, the problem especially affects low-income students who are already vulnerable to falling behind their classmates.

According to a RAND Corporation report—“Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning”— commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, low-income students are more prone to longer lasting and more academically damaging summer learning loss than their peers.

“While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer, low-income students lose more ground in reading, while their higher-income peers may even gain,” the report’s summary says. “Most disturbing is that summer learning loss is cumulative; over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.”

In order to help offset the learning losses of at-risk students, some school districts around the country are beginning to take unique and innovative approaches to help curtail the summer slide experienced by academically vulnerable students.

One such school district is Pittsburgh Public Schools. For the past four years, the Summer Dreamers Academy—a free summer learning camp launched by the Pittsburgh Public Schools in the summer of 2010—has been able to engage low income and at-risk students in an atmosphere conducive to learning and fun.

“You have to change the mindset that summer is just a time for cleaning the buildings and wax the floors,” says Christine Cray, Project Manager for the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Summer Dreamers Academy. “It’s also a time when kids can be in the buildings learning and using the facilities in different ways. These programs are a great opportunity to build on what’s done during the school year and to do it in a fun and engaging way.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools, the second largest school district in Pennsylvania, serves over 26,000 students—71% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. Like many other districts, summer learning loss is a major issue for low-income students around Pittsburgh, who disproportionately make up a large portion of the district’s total enrollment. So when Title 1 school districts in Pennsylvania had the opportunity to apply for stimulus funds, the district submitted a proposal to redesign the traditional notion of summer schooling. The Summer Dreamers Academy was born.

Through a successful collaboration between the district’s teachers, administrators, and local teachers union, a successful summer school model was created that combined teaching and classroom-based instruction with engaging activities and hands-on learning opportunities. Free lunch was provided to participating students, and transportation to and from camp was also offered at not cost.

In its first year, the program was only offered to rising 6th-8th grade students. By the next year, the program was open to all current K-8 students in the district and enrollment had spiked by 400%. It was clear that the summer camp model was attracting a lot of positive attention.

The early success of the Summer Dreamers Academy caught the eye of The Wallace Foundation, which offered funding, along with other local and national organizations, to support the program once the stimulus money expired.

Buoyed by the financial support, the Summer Dreamers Academy has been able to grow in size each year of its existence. This summer, almost 3,000 students will attend the Dreamers Academy at five different schools across the district for five weeks of summer learning and fun.

“Summer Dreamers is set up as a summer learning camp – all of the fun of a summer camp experience, combined with all of the academic benefits of summer school,” Cray says. “Our campers all participate in a 90-minute English-language arts block and a 90-minute math block daily, where they practice the reading and math skills that they learned during the school year in fun and exciting ways (like playing games, reading novels, performing plays in front of their classmates, etc.). In the afternoon, our campers participate in enrichment activities ranging from judo to fencing to community service to ceramics.”

But Pittsburgh Public Schools is not alone in providing these learning programs to at-risk students over the summer. Many of the largest districts around the country are beginning to re-envision the academic potential of the summer months as something greater than traditional summer schooling devoted to remediation and catch-up work.

The National Summer Learning Association, a non-profit association devoted to providing all students with summer learning opportunities, counts 25 of the country’s school districts as members of their New Vision for Summer School Network. Dedicated to the open exchange of ideas and pioneering approaches to summer learning, the Network includes the Pittsburgh Public Schools, as well as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and most of the country’s major urban districts.

But the rising demand for these programs means that not all students who could benefit are able to attend. Since the programs are tailored to serve at-risk students, priority is given to students who are struggling academically and come from low-income families. And while the response thus far from students, parents, and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive, no national studies have yet been conducted to test the effectiveness of these summer learning camps.

This summer, The Wallace Foundation is conducting one of the first national studies looking at the educational impact of these programs. District’s participating in The Wallace Foundation’s multi-year “Summer Learning Demonstration” (Pittsburgh, Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Duval County, FL) are being evaluated to document the effectiveness of these programs.

The study is set to be completed this fall—and Cray hopes that it highlights the beneficial outcomes that these programs can have for at-risk students.

“We really want to document and make the case that we’re both benefiting the kids academically and non-academically,” she says.