Summer isn't all that it is cracked up to be. We associate the
school year with routine and regimen and think of the summer months
as a time for freedom and creative exploration.
However, the reality of summer actually is much different for
the majority of American children. Most kids aren't setting up
lemonade stands and riding their bikes across town to the local
Some children spend their days in structured summer camps or
participating in enrichment activities. Others are at home with
parents who are organizing excursions to the library, museums and
parks. However, many children, particularly those in low-income
families, have a very different summer experience, one filled with
boredom and inactivity.
This "down time" comes at a real cost for students. All kids
lose some knowledge during the summer months, but the low-income
students tend to suffer the most.
What is the "summer slide"?
The term "summer slide" may sound like the newest attraction at
your local water park, but it is actually the moniker for an
unfortunate phenomenon in our schools. Nearly all elementary
students lose some of the information and skills they learned in
school during the three-month summer break from the academic
However, the statistics show that, although low-income children
make the same average progress in reading as their more affluent
peers during the school year, those reading skills slip during the
summer months at a more precipitous rate.
A 2011 report by the RAND Corporation found that elementary
students' performance falls during the summer months, but that
decline is worse among low-income students. This summer learning
loss is significant because the effect is cumulative. Over time,
this learning loss amounts to an achievement gap.
By the end of elementary school, low-income students can fall as
far as three grade levels behind their peers. This learning loss
and the subsequent achievement gap largely are attributable to the
fact that low-income students simply do not have equal access to
summer learning and enrichment opportunities.
Robyn Ziegler, director of media affairs for Chicago Public
Schools, says internal assessment data indicates that patterns of
achievement gaps for elementary CPS students mirror the national
"Students across all grades show significant learning loss in
math over the summer and students in the third grade show
significant loss in reading," Ziegler says. "Also consistent with
national research, these losses are greater for certain student
subgroups. Black and Latino students, along with English language
learners, students with disabilities, free/reduced lunch students
and male students show greater degrees of summer loss."
Megan Stanton-Anderson, principal of the Alphonsus Academy and
Center for the Arts in the Lakeview neighborhood, says although
some loss of information and skills over the summer is normal and
expected, it does impact the new school year.
"Nearly one-third of the school year is spent reviewing material
that students learned the previous school year. Our teachers spend
valuable class time on this at the expense of presenting new
content," she says.
Solutions to summer learning loss
Stanton-Anderson says that kids who are struggling learners
benefit from the consistency of year-round learning, but summer
school isn't necessarily the best answer.
"We need to get creative with summer learning opportunities and
engage kids in a way that keeps their minds fresh," she says.
"Summer learning opportunities can include at-home projects, summer
camps or visits to museums. But the effort does have to be
intentional because struggling learners are not going to be
self-motivated to pick up the workbooks and do this kind of work on
In part as a response to summer learning loss, CPS is
implementing the Full School Day initiative next year, which will
add 52 more minutes of instructional time each day and 10 more
student instructional days per year.
Some schools recently have implemented a year-round schedule,
eliminating extended summer vacations.
Ziegler says that while there has not yet been a determination
of whether differences in summer learning loss exist for CPS
schools with year-round calendars, they definitely are researching
the issue and looking at any impact on students' ability to retain
information and skills.
Summer learning resources
Experienced educators suggest that summer learning is most
effective when it also is fun.
Frances Judd, a teacher at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago
for more than 25 years, combined her experience as an educator and
a game designer to create a series of iPad apps to help kids work
on a variety of basic academic skills during the school year and
"I found that teaching through games is inherently motivating to
young minds. We can embed the business of school learning within
the fun of games. When they teach themselves, they learn
enthusiastically," Judd says.
Because she saw a need for games with academic content, Judd
created a series of iPad apps, including Chalk Walk
(mrsjuddsgames.com; available for $3.99 from the App store for use
on iPad). Chalk Walk helps kids work on fundamental skills such as
perfecting the pincer grip they will need, first to write their
name and then to pen full-length essays later in their school
Similarly, many summer programs for students aim to offer
academic content in a non-school setting.
Caryn Lichtenberg, director of curriculum and instruction at
Sharp-As-A-Tack (sharp-as-a-tack.com), agrees that play has a role
in summer learning. In fact, Sharp-As-A-Tack was founded on the
idea that kids learn best through play when they think that they
are not really learning at all.
This summer, Sharp-As-A-Tack is partnering with three other
organizations to create a summer camp experience focused on
child-centered, play-based, active learning. Source 4 Summer Camp
(source4chicago.com) will offer kids in kindergarten through fifth
grade a chance to participate in fun, structured summer enrichment.
Two sessions will be offered in August for $450 a week. Lichtenberg
acknowledges it is a struggle to get enough funding to offer these
programs to low-income students on a scholarship basis, but her
organization is working toward that objective.
Stanton-Anderson stresses that the issue of summer learning loss
is something that we have the power to combat.
"We have to look at this issue beyond just one single summer to
understand the cumulative impact," she says.
"Three months of lost time over five years in a student's
elementary academic career really adds up. The gap builds over time
and there are opportunities for intervention along the way. We need
to focus on those chances to engage these students."
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.
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