Is your brain on break? Research, programs, address 'summer learning loss' in kids
WEST ORANGE — The front steps leading to the gymnasium just got a fresh coat of bright green paint. The crayons, paper and other supplies are ordered.
It’s late June, and while most schools across the state are packing up for the year, educators at Valley Settlement House in West Orange are gearing up for opening day.
"Schools are winding down. We’re winding up," said executive director Marcina Fox.
The West Orange program, which also operates after-school and preschool programs, is one of countless summer day camps around New Jersey that offer kids a mixture of field trips, recreation and arts and crafts. Now many are beefing up educational components — adding book groups and science lessons, talking math packets and "journaling" — to combat what’s called "summer learning loss" or "summer slide."
Although many kids and parents welcome summer as a refreshing break from homework, exams and other school-year demands, experts say that when kids spend summer days lounging around, some of the learning they’ve gained slips away.
In a new survey of 500 teachers conducted by the National Summer Learning Association, based in Baltimore, 66 percent said they spend three to four weeks in September reteaching the previous year’s skills. About 24 percent spend five weeks or more.
Other research shows that most kids lose two months of grade-level equivalency in math and that low-income children also lose that much in reading, according to the association. Middle-class and affluent kids gain some reading skill, thanks to things like summer reading lists they’re encouraged to tackle.
A 2007 report by researchers at Johns Hopkins University also said that for low-income kids, the losses pile up — so much that by ninth grade, two-thirds of the achievement gap between poor and higher-income students can be explained by "summer slide." Summer learning loss also can affect whether students will aim to go to college, researchers found.
"We’ve known for a long time that summer learning loss is a problem, particularly for low-income kids," said Gary Huggins, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association.
But although "summer learning loss" may be the buzzwords creeping into conversation, is it anything new?
Many educators — and parents — say it has been a part of life for generations.
"I don’t think it’s a new thing," said Verona School Superintendent Steve Forte. "This is an agrarian calendar. It’s been an issue for a long time."
Verona offers a summer enrichment academy for students from prekindergarten through high school, and even two college-level classes. But Forte’s summer advice for kids — even his own two children — is to pursue academics "in moderation."
"I don’t think we should take a kid’s whole summer," he said.
Huggins said that what’s new is increased awareness of the issue. He said research also shows kids who are in summer programs fare better than those who are not.
"I think what’s happening is a recognition that despite what we’re investing in education reform, improving teacher effectiveness, higher expectations, the progress we’re making is diminished if we’re not addressing the summer," he said.
Not all parents can find summer programs for their kids, however. The state Department of Education does not require or fund summer schools, and some school districts have been forced to cut programs because of budget constraints. Many nonprofit programs say it’s difficult to find enough funding for all the children who would like to attend.
Diane Genco, executive director of the New Jersey School-Age Care Coalition, said there are other places kids can find summer learning, however, such as museums and free library reading clubs.
At the Valley Settlement House in West Orange, a nonprofit agency housed in a cluster of old Victorian houses and a two-story gymnasium, some 90 kids, mostly low-income and all with working parents, will start camp July 1.
The camp offers everything from science labs to beach trips, with learning embedded into the day. A few years ago, for example, Fox said teachers began asking kids to bring a book along on bus rides to excursions.
"Sometimes we’re on a bus for 50 minutes. Rather than just ride a bus, we’ll read while we ride," she said. "If we called it a learning program, I don’t think the kids would be as interested."
The camp is funded mostly through Essex County and private dollars. Parents also pay on a sliding scale, based on income.
One recent afternoon, teacher Sidney Flournoy sat with fourth- and fifth-graders at child-sized tables in the bright orange recreation room. Although a few kids smiled at the idea of field-trip books — one said the books "might as well get lost" — they said they like the mix of learning and fun.
"Sometimes I forget what I learned during the school year," said Thania Piercin, 10, of Orange. "I like that we do math and social studies."
Dayanara Machado, 10, of West Orange, agreed.
"I like to go to learn," she said. "As long as we don’t have homework."