Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Summer Learning That Sticks: Children from Low-Income Families Had Higher Test Results Following Participation in Structured Summer Learning That Shared Some Key Characteristics

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Summer Learning That Sticks: Children from Low-Income Families Had Higher Test Results Following Participation in Structured Summer Learning That Shared Some Key Characteristics

Article excerpt

After spending the morning learning fractions, a group of eight- and nine-year-olds are sailing in Boston Harbor, building teamwork and soaking up the sun. You might think they attend an elite prep school, but this is summer, and these are students of the Boston Summer Learning Project, a voluntary program for children from low-income families run by Boston Public Schools.

A study, the largest of its kind, conducted by the RAND Corporation and funded by The Wallace Foundation, now offers evidence that such programs can provide academic and other benefits--particularly to students with high attendance (Augustine et al., 2016).

Why summer matters

School districts face a pair of persistent gaps in opportunities for students and gaps in academic achievement. Children from low-income families don't have access to the same enriching activities and learning experiences as their more affluent peers. They also lose ground in learning over the summer relative to children from higher-income families.

Summer programs can help shrink these gaps, exposing disadvantaged students to stimulating new activities and helping them make up ground in core academic subjects. Voluntary programs run by the school district that offer a mix of academic and enrichment activities have the potential to reach more students than traditional summer school or boutique programs run by outside organizations.

Yet until now, research on the effectiveness of summer programs has mostly focused on programs that were either mandatory for students or not run by the district. To fill in this blank, The Wallace Foundation launched the National Summer Learning Project in 2011. Wallace commissioned RAND to study the large-scale, voluntary summer learning programs led by five public school districts: Boston, Mass.; Dallas, Texas; Duval County, Fla.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Rochester, N.Y. (Two districts, Boston and Dallas, worked with a local nonprofit intermediary to handle the selection, preparation, and oversight of community-based enrichment providers.) The goals of the project were to provide summer learning opportunities to thousands of children in low-income communities, help the districts improve their programs, and understand what effect, if any, the summer programs have on participating students--and what factors influence results.

What the programs look like

The programs created by the districts in the study had several elements in common:

* A mix of academics and enrichment activities;

* Certified teachers providing academic instruction;

* Small class size (no more than 15 students);

* Full-day programming, provided five days a week, except holidays, for five to six weeks;

* At least three hours of instruction in math and English language arts daily;

* No fee for participation; and

* Free transportation and meals.

These elements reflect what experts and evidence say makes for a successful summer program. They also help remove barriers that could prevent families from participating, including cost and transportation.

Beyond these common features, districts had the freedom to make a number of decisions about program design. They chose from a list of established math and English language arts curricula. They also varied significantly in how they approached enrichment. Some had a strong focus on the arts; others offered a broader menu of options, including cooking, computer coding, and sailing.

In some districts, enrichment activities differed in each program site, depending on the needs, interests, and nonprofit providers in the community. "There are going to be some areas in our district where the kids are going to want to learn mariachi music," said Crystal Rentz, director of summer learning for the Dallas Independent School District. "There are going to be some areas where the kids are going to want to learn how to step [dance]. …

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