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This Local Program Combats Summer Learning Loss. Could It Be Replicated Nationwide?

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In 1906, long before the words “data driven” became an essential component of every educator’s vocabulary, a college math professor in New York state conducted a research project with 15 grade-school students, giving them math quizzes with the same questions in June and in September.

The fourth-graders gave 26 percent fewer correct answers in September than they had at the end of the previous school year, and it took them twice as long to come up with the answers. The seventh-graders also lost ground, but not as much.

William F. White had uncovered the phenomenon first called “summer slide,” now more elegantly labeled “summer learning loss.” Repeated studies over the past 100-plus years, most of them far more sophisticated than White’s, have confirmed and elaborated on his rather elementary findings. In sum, kids lose about a month’s worth of learning every summer, especially in math and spelling, and the losses are even greater among low-income children.

The problem, then, may not be new, but for educators, many of whom enjoy their summer breaks as much as students do, finding the solution has remained elusive.

But a steadily growing program that started in Wilmington is demonstrating the potential to halt, or even reverse, summer learning loss, and to do it economically—at a price of about $400 per child per summer.

The project is the brainchild of 31-year-old Catherine Lindroth, who began building the framework for the Summer Learning Collaborative as she sought a solution for a different problem that she encountered in her first year as a manager in the Delaware regional office of Teach For America.

In the fall of 2013, Lindroth was looking for ways to strengthen the community ties of Teach For America corps members while giving them more teaching experience—goals that would improve TFA’s retention rate and enhance classroom performance. While Lindroth was brainstorming, she started getting calls from leaders at community centers around the city—West End Neighborhood House, Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center, the Latin American Community Center, the Walnut Street YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs. All were looking for tutors to help get the youngsters enrolled in their after-school programs back up to grade level.

After-school tutoring wouldn’t have worked out—the teachers weren’t available at that time of day—but a souped-up version of summer camp was worth a try. Lindroth and Laurisa Schutt, TFA’s Delaware executive director, convinced Barclaycard US to award a $10,000 grant to launch the project.

“It’s a rather simple idea, but it’s really creative and innovative,” says Jocelyn Stewart, Barclaycard’s director of community investment. “If you believe the research on summer learning loss, how do you change that to give kids a fighting chance to succeed throughout the school year?”

From its modest beginning in 2014—28 teachers at five locations—the Summer Learning Collaborative has blossomed. This summer the program is operating at 12 sites—11 in Wilmington and one at the Western Sussex Boys & Girls Club—and serving more than 2,000 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

It’s now an independent nonprofit organization, with an annual budget in the high six figures, that has received grants from Barclaycard, Capital One, WSFS Bank, United Way, the Longwood Foundation, Welfare Foundation, Laffey-McHugh Foundation and Good Samaritan Foundation. Its summer staff has more than 80 employees, including 55 teachers.

Lindroth hopes to have the program model refined well enough by next year to have it replicated statewide, and she thinks it can grow to serve as many as 7,000 students across the state by 2020. Her big dream is to take the program nationwide, through funding by a major foundation.

That’s not so far-fetched, says Jim Kelly, a retired Capital One executive vice president who approved the first grant the bank made to the collaborative and last year joined the organization’s board of directors. “We’d like to think this program has legs across America, but our next step will be to build on our success in Delaware by looking at opportunities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.”

“It could easily be a national model, but we’ve got to simplify it a little more and put more of it online,” says Stewart. She notes that Barclaycard gave the collab a $100,000 grant this year.

Delaware doesn’t have any state-specific data that would measure summer learning loss, “but everything we see [in the state’s public schools] tends to correlate with the national studies,” says Michael Watson, chief academic officer at the state Department of Education.

“Most of the data says [low-income] students lose three to six months of learning time because they’re dormant during the summer,” says Merv Daugherty, superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Using an online reading and math assessment program called Let’s Go Learn, the Summer Collab found that 86 percent of 2016’s 1,500 campers showed learning gains that averaged three to four months during the 12-week programs. A quarter of those students registered gains of a year or more.

This year, Summer Collab participants from Red Clay schools will be tracked (with the permission of their parents or guardians) throughout the coming school year to determine how well they retain what they learned over the summer. “We think the service they’re providing is outstanding,” Daugherty says. “They’re looking at critical thinking skills, at literacy, at encouragement. I think it’s a perfect match for us.”

In general, Lindroth says, the higher a family’s income, the more learning opportunities children will have during the summer. “Parents will purchase experiences for their kids, and often these experiences will put them in an environment where they’re encouraged to see themselves in a new light,” she says.

Lindroth had that experience. As a middle schooler in a public school in Connecticut, she attended a month-long summer STEM camp at the elite Miss Porter’s School. As she developed an interest in science and math, camp officials suggested she consider applying to the school. She did, and she was accepted. “My life changed,” Lindroth says.

Low-income kids, on the other hand, have fewer options. “You stay home and take care of siblings. If you’re lucky, you’re getting daycare. There can be a lack of supervision, of role models, of safety and nutrition,” she says.

Summer Collab programs look a lot like summer camp. Kids get time to play in the gym, swim in the pool, join clubs and do arts and crafts. Embedded in many of these activities is a learning component, created by young teachers who work part time at the collaborative in winter and spring creating curriculum modules and who then oversee the camp counselors as they integrate the programming into the daily schedule.

“There’s very little pencil on paper. When kids see that, they shut down,” says Tasia Wright, summer camp and education coordinator at Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center. “Movement is involved in every aspect of the lesson. If we’re teaching about rocket ships, they’re building [a model]. They’re constantly moving, not sitting in a chair.”

“It feels like a camp. Everything is hands-on,” says Kristina Woznicki, associate executive director at the Walnut Street YMCA. “We don’t say, ‘This is important because you’ll learn it in fourth-grade science,’ but if we’re making pancakes, you learn how to use a measuring cup, and you learn that in a cup there are 8 ounces.”

“They’re learning without knowing they’re learning,” says Elizabeth Schaff, who directs the Boys & Girls Clubs summer programs at Shortlidge Elementary School and East Side Charter School. Schaff says she gets a kick out of watching kids working on a project, then suddenly making a connection with something they had already learned in school. It’s a validation of the importance of education.

The framework Summer Collab provides has given the community centers the strength to up their summer-camp games.

That’s also the beauty of the program—it’s a fresh approach that is built on the foundation of existing community organizations.

“Our camp wasn’t a bad camp before, but the change has been like night and day,” Woznicki says.

A typical summer camp is likely to have a director overseeing operations and a group of counselors, often college students, working with the youngsters.

As it has grown, Summer Collab has created an organizational structure and transformed itself into a year-round operation. As its name implies, the effort is truly collaborative, with Collab and community center staff members working together throughout a cycle that begins with planning in October and ends in September with a review of how well the camp program was executed.

Starting in November, the centers’ camp directors participate in a six-month “learning lab” offered by the Collab. The lab covers topics such as behavior management, culture building, and staff accountability. In December, camp directors choose a curriculum director from a group of teachers screened by the Collab. December through May, the camp director and curriculum director plan the site’s summer offerings, develop plans for behavior management and staff training, and take care of other details essential to running a successful camp. In February, camp directors and curriculum directors choose instructional coaches from another group of teachers. Through the spring, these instructional coaches will spend 10 hours a month training camp counselors and will work full time at the site over the summer overseeing the counselors’ work. In March, the Collab hosts a hiring fair for prospective counselors. In May it arranges for the camp sites to hire high school students who are trained to serve as supply managers.

Thanks to the combination of a layered structure and ongoing communications between the Collab and the camp directors, “our staff is better trained and we have a plan and a structure ready to go” before camp starts in late June, Schaff says.

Though the partnership produces consistency in organization and curriculum, it doesn’t mean that all 12 summer camps are alike. “Each of us has different needs, different interests,” Woznicki says. “They work with each location, and they make it work at each location.”

Community center officials say the partnership with the Collab is paying off for them year-round. At many centers, summer camp counselors also work in after-school programs from September through June, so they’re able to apply the training Collab provides to their work with kids throughout the school year.

“It’s made me better,” says 23-year-old Malachi Seney, a Lincoln University senior who is now in his third year as a summer camp counselor and year-round after-school aide at Hilltop. “They give you the [lesson] plan, what you need to do, all the directions and the background information. You follow the plan, and it makes the process easier.”

Besides building his instructional skills, training by the Collab team has helped him to relate better with the youngsters. “You have to connect,” he says. “Once the kids feel connected and engaged, they’re enthusiastic.”

Summer camp counselors aren’t the only ones who see a career benefit in working with Collab.

Anthony Bonaddio, a student support specialist at Gateway Lab School who spent more than four years teaching in Wilmington-area schools, is spending his third summer with Collab, moving up the ranks from instructional coach to curriculum director to learning lab leader. Through the winter and spring, he worked with camp leaders to review and revise their behavior plans—the positive expectations they set for campers and the consequences for not following the rules.

The work “has given me confidence,” Bonaddio says. “It has pushed me to be better than I was before.”

Overseeing the counselors he has trained has permitted him to step back and observe his ideas in action. “It has given me self-confidence when I see the ideas I’ve given someone actually working,” he says.

After teaching for five years, Nancy Aragbaye worked as a curriculum director last summer at the Latin American Community Center, then was hired to work full time as the Collab’s program director. One of her duties through the winter and spring was overseeing the writing of the summer curriculum—a package of 36 courses, each one consisting of four one-hour sessions—for the camps to use. Each course is designed for groups of 25 to 30 children, and must include both individual and group activities.

Last summer, Aragbaye felt that the courses taught at the LACC “didn’t have a consistent voice,” so the curriculum update focused on refining the ones that were kept and better structuring the new ones.

“Every lesson has a hook, a challenge each student has to learn,” she says, “and it’s camp, so it has to be fun.”

Schaff, the Boys & Girls Clubs manager, has worked with the Collab team for five years, and she is pleased with the progress it has made. “Every year, they bring more to the table—more staff, more experience. They really help us organize our day.”

Over the years, the public education establishment has taken many stabs at the summer learning loss conundrum, but no single approach has won broad approval.

Watson, from the state Department of Education, points out that those who consider the traditional September-to-June calendar “a relic of America’s agrarian past” are not entirely correct. He cites the “vacation schools” offered primarily in urban areas more than a century ago that served to help immigrant children assimilate into American culture. By the 1920s and 1930s, these programs morphed into the more familiar summer schools, which gave students a chance to repeat classes they might have failed the previous year.

More recently, some school systems, including a few in Delaware, have implemented variations of year-round calendars at the elementary level—offering the standard 180 days of instruction with a series of shorter breaks throughout the year instead of taking the entire summer off.

The Red Clay and Brandywine districts, among others, are running STEM camps this summer, giving interested students a chance to deepen their interest in science, technology, engineering and math topics. Red Clay also offers a performing arts camp at its Cab Calloway School of the Arts and hosts a summer engineering program at A.I. du Pont High School organized by the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering. (There is a charge for some of these programs.)

Both Watson and Daugherty note that running a large summer program is expensive—too much for state and local school budgets to absorb. In addition to opening the schools and paying the staff, “You’ve got to get the students there,” Daugherty says, and that means running the buses, too.

That’s another reason educators and funders alike are impressed with the Collab approach. It creates a curriculum, develops a staffing model and takes it to community centers where the kids are already expecting to spend most of their summer.

“For 10 years or so, there’s been an enormous push [toward more summer learning opportunities], and the research makes a case for it,” Daugherty says. “You want to do everything you can, get more bang for the buck. Summer Collab is a perfect opportunity. It’s a partnership and they’re covering the costs.”

Collab itself has borrowed some of its programming schemes from other summer camp concepts, including some that take inner-city kids to private school or college campuses for a month or two. Those programs cost about $4,000 a child to run, Lindroth says. That’s about 10 times the cost of Collab’s operation.

“I believe we saw something that’s needed in every community in the country. It meets the needs of students. It meets the needs of teachers. It meets the needs of educators and community leaders,” Lindroth says. “It’s an intersectional strategy that optimizes, and I believe it can be scaled.”

If Lindroth is right, and the Collab can scale itself outward into other states and show itself worthy of the big foundation grant that is her long-term goal, then maybe she’ll see the headline of her dreams: Educational Equity Achieved by Summer Intervention for Low-Income Children.

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