As district administrators nationwide are cutting summer school programs due to budget shortfalls, with some using the last of their stimulus money to retain teaching positions, other districts are prioritizing these programs. They know that, particularly for high poverty students, cutting programming means learning setbacks and a precarious time with few opportunities for physical activity, academic and cultural enrichment, creative exploration, or in some cases, proper nutrition.
"A lot of the reason districts are cutting summer programs has to do with leadership issues," says Jeff Smink, vice president of policy for the National Summer Learning Association, a national organization that provides resources, guidance and expertise to the summer learning community. "It's unfortunate that more administrators are not strategic about Title I dollars and other public, private and community funding allowing them to be more committed to summer programs."
Ron Fairchild, CEO of the same group, says that "by rethinking summer school, those same districts can use summer programming as a path to close the achievement gap, pilot innovative education reform strategies, and offer enrichment opportunities for students who need it most.
The National Summer Learning Association works with thousands of districts to move away from the association of summer school with not doing well academically, and toward a new vision of summer school that promotes comprehensive learning programs blending academic lessons and enrichment activities. With support from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the association has launched a three-year campaign to increase public investment in summer programs by $50 million. It is already halfway toward its goal.
The association began as the National Center for Summer Learning at John Hopkins University. Research such as a 2007 Johns Hopkins study had found two-thirds of the achievement gap in reading between poor and more advantaged ninth-graders was due to unequal summer learning experiences during the elementary school years, so the need for a national organization devoted to making summer learning available to all children was recognized.
Over the last two years Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has redesigned its summer program with the vision that the National Summer Learning Association endorses. Camp MPS, the program name for elementary and middle school participants, combines high-quality learning plus enrichment activities for K12 students. Students get hands-on lessons that integrate science or math with literacy in morning sessions. Here they have a chance to work with local artists and experts who lead classroom discussions and demonstrations. Middle-grade students study subjects like water ecology and local history, then canoe down a river to learn about the economic impact the water has had on the region, or they test chemical changes in the water over time. The afternoon sessions include high-interest recreational and enrichment activities. Students can also go to overnight camp or algebra camp, or participate in a program at a local college campus.
Their summer high school program, called the High School Academy, attempts to stimulate students academically rather than provide sheer credit recovery or test prep classes that get kids "through" the tests. Some science classes include lab experiments in the local creek, and online coursework differentiates learning based on students needs.
"We believe if we can engage the kids, the learning will follow," says Mary Barrie, who directs alternative and extended learning programs for the 36,000-student district. "We really feel like this is one way to go after the achievement gap. And when you have fun educational activities for kids—things they would never have the chance to do themselves—you can eliminate the opportunity gap."
Much of the $6 million spent annually on summer programming is available through the Minnesota graduation incentive law, which allows schools to use targeted state funding for out-of school programs for students who meet their requirements. Community organizations such as Wilderness Inquiry and parks and recreation centers have become partners with the district in providing resources and expertise.
Anecdotal evidence from teachers shows that attendees of the program are better prepared for academics and have better attitudes toward school. But as Barrie states, "We have to show there's a difference with our state test scores when you have good summer programming, so we can make an argument for our funding, and perhaps more funding to expand the programs."
For this organization, the political and social climate is ideal for advocating for its ideals. In a recent statement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, "At a time when we need to work harder to close achievement gaps and prepare every child for college and career, cutting summer school is the wrong way to go. These kids need more time, not less."
Other developments illustrating that the time is right for expanding summer learning include:
- Passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which provides significant funding that can be used to support summer learning programs.
- Strong support and leadership on the part of President Obama and Secretary Duncan for innovative summer and expanded learning programs, particularly as a strategy for turning around low-performing schools.
- Growing national interest on the part of state and local policymakers in the issue of expanded learning time, as well as philanthropy and other key stakeholders.
- Increased capacity to implement high-quality summer learning programs at the national, state and local levels.
The National Summer Learning Association seeks to work with school districts and community partner organizations to strategically utilize federal, state and local funding sources to develop a new vision for summer school that incorporates the following nine principles:
- Increase the duration, intensity and scope of the traditional summer school model to a comprehensive research-based, six-week, full-day model that makes summer an essential component of district school reform strategy.
- Expand participation from only those students struggling academically to all students in schoolwide Title I programs, and consider expanded-year programs that include all students in participating schools.
- Change the focus from narrow remediation and test preparation to a blended approach of both academic learning in core subject areas and enrichment activities that provide hands-on, engaging programming that fosters critical 21st-century skills like collaboration, innovation, creativity, communication and data analysis.
- Strengthen and expand partnerships with community-based organizations and public agencies that provide summer activities to align and leverage existing resources, identify and meet gaps in service, improve program quality, and develop shared outcomes for summer success.