Like most suburban kids, I have fond childhood memories of summer vacation. Mid-June to the Labor Day was always a time for exploration, new discoveries, and hands-on learning. There was Girl Scout Summer Camp between fourth and fifth grade where I slept in a tent with my best friends, learned to kayak and wind-surf, and performed skits in front of the camp fire. Between seventh and eighth grade, I took an art class at the local museum and came home each day covered with either clay or oil paint. Between my junior and senior years of high school, I lived with a Maori family in New Zealand, where I attended the local school and participated in an outdoor adventure program that included building and sleeping in a snow cave, bungee jumping, and spending 24 hours alone in the wilderness.
Then there were the summer road trips. My family would pile into a big blue Suburban hitched with a tent-trailer and head either north or east from Southern California. We caught salmon in Puget Sound, found the stone house where my great-grandmother was born in the middle of a corn field in Nebraska, experienced the Anne of Green Gables world of Prince Edward Island, and tried to visit every national park, monument, and forest from Acadia to Zion.
Of course, there was also the obligatory college tour that was required to whittle down a preliminary list of fifty or so prospective schools to a more manageable ten to twelve. [The many college pennants from this rite-of-passage tour of campuses are now hanging in my classroom.]
And finally there was summer school, for either a special enrichment class or an opportunity to get a science class out of the way, and numerous summer jobs.
Summer always seemed to end too soon, but when the new school year started and my teacher asked the ubiquitous question “What did you do on your summer vacation?,” I could fill volumes. I learned a lot from my teachers and textbooks while in school, but summer was able to produce a wholly different collection of teachable moments.
My fond memories of summer vacation do not coincide with reality for many, especially those living below the poverty line like the students who attend the school where I teach. Even though our public charter school has a relatively short summer break of six weeks, I am reminded each August when a new school year starts that all summer vacations are not created equal. Most low-income students’ summers do not include new adventures and learning experiences. Rather, their weeks-off are filled with boredom, endless TV and video games, little supervision, and plenty of isolation. They spend most hours indoors because exploring the neighborhood is not a safe option. In this economy, there are few summer jobs and often limited summer school programs. My students actually yearn to return to school to be with their friends and, consciously or unconsciously, find comfort in the challenges and opportunities of a structured environment.
Our education system faces some extraordinary hurdles. At the heart is how best to meet the nation’s goal of educating all students equitably and justly. Front and center is the ever-present conundrum we call the achievement gap. There are a variety of theories as to why such a gap exists and how to address it effectively. The cover article in the August 2, 2010 edition of Time Magazine titled The Case Against Summer Vacation points a finger directly at the time-honored tradition of summer vacation as a major contributor to the achievement gap.
There are a number of reasons why the education community needs to take a second look at the summer break and its possible role in perpetuating inequity among our students. Harris Cooper, a summer-learning expert at Duke University points out that, “On average, students lose about a month of progress in math skills each summer, while low income students slip as many as three months in reading comprehension compared with middle-income students.” In addition, a second study performed at Johns Hopkins University concluded that while students may make similar gains during the school year, more affluent students held steady over summer breaks by the end of grammar school but “low income students had fallen nearly three grade levels behind,” primarily because of the summer break and lack of healthy stimulation.
The majority of the 30 million American school children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch do not attend any type of summer enrichment activity. Referred to as the “summer learning loss” or “the summer slide,” students with less resources seem to fall further and further behind during this hiatus from school each year.
My school is making several attempts to address this summer slump and they seem to be working. Rather than the traditional 180-day school year, our students attend school for 208 days, reducing their summer break from eight or nine weeks to six weeks. However, while the longer school year allows more quality instructional time, there is universal agreement that students, as well as teachers, need a summer break. But that break should be stimulating for students, foster creativity, and provide opportunities to explore and apply what they have learned in the classroom to the real world. As a result, our faculty and administration work tirelessly with the community and local colleges to provide internships and enrichment activities for students during the break. Some of these opportunities include a Girls Leadership Academy and internships at the UCSD medical center and local bio-tech companies. Scholarships are also solicited from the local community for students to attend programs such as Space Camp.
In addition, this year, one of our teachers started a non-profit organization called Surf n’ Serve. Its mission is to teach low-income students how to surf while serving the San Diego community through outreach activities. Students spend the morning at a surf camp and the afternoons completing community service activities.
While these steps provide students with stimulating summer activities, there are still far more students than available opportunities. Many students linger on waiting lists or cannot afford or obtain scholarships to a program.
If we are serious about closing the achievement gap and providing equitable learning experiences to all our students, we must seriously consider expanding our school year and offering valuable enrichment opportunities to students during the summer. With the growing number of non-profit groups springing up across the country, coordinating efforts between these agencies would help spread the word about available opportunities and strategies for success, similar to what the Lilly Endowment is doing in Indianapolis.
Our discussion about education reform needs to go beyond the schoolyard. Much learning can be gained, and lost, when the classrooms are closed. While I remember with fond nostalgia my summer breaks, the reality for many low-income students matches the lament from the old rock-and-roll tune:
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do,
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.