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December 2011/January 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 4
The Resourceful School
Even in times of tight budgets, summer learning programs are a good investment in closing achievement gaps.
Roberta Davenport, principal of P.S. 307 in downtown Brooklyn, has perfected the art of doing more with less. Her elementary school gets private funds to underwrite a children's choir and has received 30 donated keyboards for budding musicians. Thanks to an ongoing relationship with a local arts organization, students at P.S. 307 show their work at an annual spring arts festival. "I look for private money and also for what's free," says Davenport, who grew up in the community. "And we have partnerships that are helping."
Davenport extends her "whatever it takes" spirit into the summer months through an unusual partnership with Brooklyn Friends School, an independent preK–12 school only a short bus ride away. For the past four summers, Brooklyn Friends has provided a summer learning program called Horizons for students from P.S. 307 and three other nearby public elementary schools. Participating students work on their reading and math and also enjoy a rich array of non academic activities that make their summers a time for learning.
The goal of the Horizons program is to stop what is widely known as the summer slide—a term that suggests a playful amusement park attraction but actually describes a grim reality. The phenomenon was studied extensively by Johns Hopkins University researchers Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson (2007), whose longitudinal study tracked Baltimore students from 1st grade through age 22. Although low-income children in the study made as much progress in reading during the academic year as middle-income children did, the poorer children's reading skills slipped away during the summer months. The researchers concluded that two-thirds of the 9th grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during elementary school. This achievement level is a huge determinant of whether students stay in school and follow a college-preparatory track.
More recent findings have reached equally alarming conclusions. In a comprehensive analysis published by the RAND Corporation, McCombs and colleagues (2011) note that elementary students' performance falls by about a month during the summer, but the decline is far worse for lower-income students. Most disturbing, it appears that summer learning loss is cumulative and that, over time, these periods of differential learning rates between low-income and higher-income students contribute substantially to the achievement gap. These researchers concluded that efforts to close the achievement gap during the school year alone may be unsuccessful.
The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort among dozens of foundations, lists summer learning loss as one of the three major obstacles to reading proficiency at the end of 3rd grade (Gewertz, 2011). (The others are children starting kindergarten un prepared to succeed and chronic absenteeism in the early grades.) This early learning gap has far-reaching negative consequences. According to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "one in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers" (Hernandez, 2011, p. 3).
Trying to rectify the learning loss that occurs in the summer is costly. There are estimates that reteaching forgotten material when students return to school after the summer costs more than $1,500 per student each year, or more than $18,000 over the course of a K–12 career (Fairchild & Boulay, 2002). Schools can ill afford these expenses at a time when their budgets are already stretched to the breaking point.
Speaking on behalf of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading at a U.S. Department of Education event, Annie E. Casey Foundation executive vice president Ralph Smith (2011) summed up the urgency of the summer learning loss problem:
Too many children are losing too much ground over summer vacation, especially low-income children… This is not a school problem; this is a community problem, and we've got to organize ourselves to solve that.
Despite the problem of widening achievement gaps in the summer months, many districts are seeking to curb costs by eliminating summer school. Some may base this decision on research suggesting that traditional summer school is an imperfect solution to the problem. The common summer school experience that preps students to clear promotional hurdles (especially following the "gateway" high-stakes testing years, such as 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade) tends to produce short-term achievement gains that quickly erode (Cooper, Charlton, Valentine, & Muhlenbruck, 2000).
High-quality academic enrichment programming in the summer months, although more effective, tends to cost more per student per classroom hour than the regular school day. With public funds drying up and widespread budget cuts, programs funded solely by school districts are unlikely to provide a sustainable solution.
However, there are cost-effective alternatives—summer learning programs that work with private/public partnerships to implement high-quality academic enrichment programs proven to mitigate, and in some cases reverse, the summer slide. Some of these programs are funded exclusively by private philanthropy and are free to their district partners. Others combine private philanthropy and public funding through school districts and government entities.
One of the leaders, and probably the largest for K–8 students, is BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), which offers both after-school and summer learning programs and serves more than 9,000 students. BELL runs its classes in the public schools and works closely with districts to access public dollars for teaching and administration. Breakthrough Collaborative, which began its life as Summerbridge, employs and inspires high school and college students to pursue careers in education as it focuses on preparing low-income middle school students for college. Higher Achievement, which began in the Washington, D.C., area and has been expanding to more communities, also serves middle school students, with great success.
Our organization, Horizons National, has 20 affiliate sites in 10 states reaching more than 2,000 students from 308 public schools. Each Horizons affiliate forms its own board, selects students and faculty, and undertakes local fund-raising. Horizons National provides affiliates with technical assistance, seed money, matching funds, and assessment tools for ongoing program evaluation. We rely entirely on private philanthropy, with a robust funding model that accesses local, regional, and national resources; there is little or no cost to the school district. The Horizons network of public/private partnerships comprises private schools, universities, and community colleges that have made a long-term commitment to support low-income students who attend their neighborhood public elementary and middle schools.
At the Brooklyn Friends site, Horizons draws from four public schools, including P.S. 307. The program began four years ago with 15 kindergartners, and it adds another class every year. On admission, one-third of the students are performing at grade level, and the rest are performing below average. We intentionally admit a range of learners so that those who are stronger academically can model desired behaviors for the rest of their class.
Our students are all low-income, and they come from a mix of backgrounds. At the Brooklyn Friends Horizons, about 80 percent are black, 10 percent are Latino, and 10 percent are Asian. Professional teachers, drawn from both Brooklyn Friends School and the local public school system, head each classroom with support from teaching assistants, for a student–teacher ratio of 5 to 1.
Although Horizons National provides a broad range of services and funding to our affiliates—including reading specialists who ensure an individualized approach to instruction and intervention—each of our affiliates has a great deal of autonomy. We don't have a set curriculum. Instead, we invest in hiring experienced, excellent teachers from both public and private schools who work side by side and learn from one another, creating hands-on and project-based learning opportunities that reflect their unique schools and communities.
Many of our teachers tell us that they look forward all year to teaching at Horizons, where they are given the freedom to be creative and teach as they had always hoped. The excitement and enthusiasm of our instructional staff, many of whom are with students they also teach during the school year, is palpable and infectious.
In addition to reading and math instruction, Horizons programs give children the sort of enrichment typically enjoyed by more affluent youngsters, such as field trips to museums, camping in the mountains, Broadway shows, and music instruction. Without programs like these, most of our students would be sitting at home watching television while their middle-class peers were off to camp or on a family vacation. At Horizons, every child learns to swim; a wonderful, confidence-building achievement that's especially important in the black and Latino communities, which have drowning rates four times the national average and in which children are often taught to fear the water.
Parent involvement is another crucial underpinning of Horizons. At the Brooklyn Friends program, parents are required to attend an introductory lunch at the beginning of the summer and are invited to a closing celebration at the end. During the regular school year, there are Saturday field trips and academies that offer enrichment for students while their parents attend workshops on subjects like financial literacy, parenting skills, and nutrition.
Parental involvement helps us reach another key goal—to create a community of lifelong learners. Continuity is intentional and is the key ingredient to establishing an enduring community. Horizons students enter the program the summer following kindergarten, and they may return for nine years through the summer before 9th grade. Our average student stays for more than five years; national year-to-year retention is about 82 percent.
Over the course of the six-week program, our students realize average gains of two to three months in reading and math skills. But much of the change we seek and achieve is attitudinal. Our goal is to return students to their public schools loving learning and performing at higher levels. Public school teachers and administrators tell us Horizons students are more motivated academically, more eager to learn, and more likely to become student leaders.
Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School costs P.S. 307 nothing. The program is tuition-free except for a nominal registration fee paid by the family. Private philanthropy in the community supports the program, and the Brooklyn Friends School contributes its facilities and some business office services.
At P.S. 307, Roberta Davenport sees the partnership with Brooklyn Friends School as a capacity-building opportunity for the two teachers who worked in the Horizons program last summer. "I look at it as a professional opportunity for continued growth and development for my teachers, working off-site, interacting with teachers from Brooklyn Friends School and other schools," she says. "They bring those experiences back here in September. It really pushes and stretches my teachers."
But of course the primary focus is the students. Although we can't yet be certain about their long-term gains, Principal Davenport says the Horizons students are different from students who haven't participated in a summer learning program. They are able to read for more sustained periods, show greater confidence as learners, ask and answer more questions, listen and follow directions, and are better able to work in groups as well as independently.
For students from all Horizons affiliates, the average high school graduation rate is close to 90 percent, well above the national average of 75 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). So we have great confidence that the eager students at P.S. 307 will get there, too.
Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D., & Olson, L. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72, 167–180.
Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65(1), 1–118.
Fairchild, R., & Boulay, M. (2002, November). What if summer learning loss were an education policy priority? Presentation at the 24th Annual Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Research Conference, Washington, DC.
Gewertz, C. (2011, July 12). States target early years to reach 3rd grade reading goals. Education Week, p. P2.
Hernandez, D. J. (2011) Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. Baltimore: Annie E. Casey Foundation.
McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C. H., Schwartz, H. L., Bodilly, S. J., McInnis, B., Lichter, D. S., & Cross, A. B. (2011). Making summer count: How summer programs can boost students' learning. Santa Monica, CA: RAND. Retrieved from www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2011/RAND_MG1120.pdf
National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). The condition of education 2011. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/overview.asp
Smith, R. (2011, May 25). Early childhood learning challenge announcement. Washington, DC: Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/14949645
Lorna Smith is chief executive officer of Horizons National, Norwalk, Connecticut; www.horizonsnational.org.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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