By: Rae Ann Knopf and Nicki Perkins

As Connecticut continues its work on closing the achievement gap during these summer months, it’s important to know that some disparities in academic performance between students of different socio-economic statuses can be traced to unequal learning opportunities over the summer vacation.  Nationally, students of all backgrounds tend to lose about one month of their math and reading gains from the prior academic year each summer. We call this “summer learning loss.” According to last year’s study by the RAND Corporation, low-income students are disproportionately affected by summer learning loss. On average, low-income students lose two months of reading skills, with losses accumulating over multiple summers.

In fact, a 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that even when students across socio-economic lines are learning at similar rates during the school year, low-income students who experience significant summer learning loss start out progressively further behind each year.  This means that they would need to experience more than a year’s worth of learning each school year just to keep pace with their peers. In fact, the study indicated that about two-thirds of the achievement gap in Baltimore could be explained by summer learning loss during the elementary school years. In other words, summer learning loss is a significant contributing factor to the achievement gap.  While some of the historical methods of addressing this problem (such as requiring students to attend traditional remedial classes or summer school) have not been successful, recent research has identified strategies that dowork.  These studies have generated national enthusiasm for summer learning initiatives that bring district educators and community members together to work on mitigating summer learning losses and even narrowing achievement gaps during the summer.

Not All Summer Learning Initiatives Are Created Equal

We’ve taken a look at some of the approaches adopted by districts across the nation that have taken the lead on developing high-quality summer learning programs, and their programs show some common trends.

Trend #1.  Balancing Learning with Enrichment and Fun The best summer learning options take a holistic approach to helping students close gaps in learning while also providing enriching activities. They avoid the dreaded “attend summer school or fail” tactics and combine high quality instruction—in core subjects like reading and math, where many students need extra help—with fun, enriching experiences, such as sports and arts activities. Several districts that are receiving support from the Wallace Foundation’s $50 million summer learning initiative (monitoring summer learning programs and their results in six low-income communities) have embraced this approach.  For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools has launched a Summer Dreamers Academy, which focuses on making the summer learning experience seem more like camp than school, so that students can “have fun while they’re learning” through outdoor activities such as kayaking and judo.

Trend #2.  Providing Free Meals:   Research shows that low-income children often have difficulty accessing healthy food over the summer, or sometimes any nourishment at all.  As a result, summer learning initiatives are increasingly taking a holistic approach by keeping students well-nourished so that their minds are ready to learn. For example, this year Baltimore is launching a “Super Summer” program to combat summer learning loss. This initiative provides summer learning academies and camps, as well as partnering with the city housing department and the League of Baltimore City to provide breakfasts and dinners to summer students.

Trend #3.  Developing Collaborative Partnerships Another approach to building successful summer learning initiatives involves partnerships between local towns, community organizations, schools, foundations and businesses. The RAND study emphasizes the importance of partnering with community-based, and other organizations to provide greater benefits at lowered costs, and alternative approaches to enrichment. For example, Boston’s summer initiativeis supported by partnerships with organizations such as the Wallace Foundation, the Boys & Girls Club of Boston, the YMCA and Boston Nature Center.  Additionally, Boston’s approach demonstrates the importance of building collaboration between schools and summer programs, where schools identify students early and link them to summer opportunities, and where teachers coordinate directly with nonprofit staff.

Summer Learning in Connecticut

The State of Connecticut already has statutory authorization to establish summer school and academic enrichment programs, and some districts do provide summer learning experiences for certain students.  However, our state, by and large, does not yet require low-achieving students throughout the state to participate in these programs. Furthermore, Connecticut lacks a transparent method of reporting on funding, partnerships, enrollment, or the effectiveness of existing summer learning programs. It is clear that summer learning programs can help Connecticut to close its achievement gap. In light of Connecticut’s new focus on Alliance Districts, the Commissioner’s Network Schools and an overall emphasis on the strategic use of time and funding—now is the time for Connecticut’s education practitioners to begin building a statewide plan for summer learning programs that incorporates the best practices from successful models across the nation.