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 pool.
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 grind.
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 trend.
"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 their own."
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 beyond.
"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 careers.
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.