Nan Austin

On Campus: Learning shouldn’t be allowed to dry up over summer

It’s mid-July and summer break is more than half over for schoolkids and teachers. Time to take those day trips to the beach or camp under the big trees or live a little history in Columbia State Historic Park.

Can’t get away? Get a book, try a new game, have the kids make lunch and help you post it on Facebook. Google “paper airplanes,” try different styles and try to figure out why some fly better, turn faster, crash instantly.

I confess, not every day was a teddy bear picnic when my kids were little, but seizing the day was a high priority in summer, just like it is for a lot of families. Turns out, all that time spent just keeping myself and the kids entertained was good educational strategy, warding off summer learning loss.

Who knew? Mom, Ph.D.

It turns out researchers knew. Studies in 1978 of Georgia middle schoolers and in the 1980s of Baltimore elementary kids established that kids’ school skills get rusty over summer vacation. That’s 30-plus years of knowing this was a problem.

To this day, however, 60 percent of parents do not believe their kids lose any reading prowess over the summer, and only 17 percent make reading a vacation priority, according to a study released in June by the Reading Is Fundamental nonprofit and Macy’s.

Math skills also drop, by about two months on average, the nonprofit National Summer Learning Association says. It surveyed teachers last year and found two-thirds of all classrooms start the school year with three to four weeks of review, just getting kids back up to speed.

Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the association, spoke to reporters during an Education Writers Association webinar Wednesday. Statistically, she noted summer learning goes on for well-off kids, pretty much plateaus for middle-class students and drops significantly for poor children.

Two points with policy potential: First, the effects are cumulative. Every summer, low-income kids fall further and further behind and never catch up. Second, the summer loss matters more than being in a high- or low-achieving school.

“Schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. Gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine months they’re in school,” Pitcock said.

She attributed this to what she calls the faucet theory. While in school, very low-income children have steady access to nutritious meals, books matched to their reading ability, structured activities and exercise. I would add English learners and kids without literate adults around also get a steady stream of well-spoken English.

Over the summer, however, low-income children may have none of that. “Many have not a single book in the home,” Pitcock said. “For low-income kids, the faucet is turned off.”

Here’s the good news: Summer learning programs work, and Pitcock’s group has lots of information on that at Another bit of good news: Summer programs will be making a comeback in some districts here with more state funds for poor kids and English learners.

For 2015, Modesto City Schools is planning one-week summer academies, elementary grade programs and rev-up sessions to help transition between grades, said Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson.

Ceres Unified started this summer, with core courses and electives for high school students, open-to-all elementary programs and a two-week kindergarten readiness program, said Assistant Superintendent Jay Simmonds.

Turlock Unified also plans to expand summer offerings in 2015, including enrichment programs, according to the district’s spending plan aligned to community priorities.

Here’s raising a lemonade to hands-on summer fun and keeping kids’ school prospects sunny.