During a recent summer school visit, while children built simple machines out of Dixie Cups and straws, I heard a teacher tell her students "redesign your project, don't be afraid to rebuild it."
When it comes to education reform in Virginia, maybe we adults should take that advice. It's high time we consider redesigning the school calendar, especially when it comes to summer.
A growing amount of evidence shows that summer vacation puts low income families at a disadvantage when it comes to children's learning and family finances. After all, money that goes to summer camps and activities can't go to other family essentials like rent and food.
But the biggest costs of our outdated calendar are borne by children. During the school year most children learn at the same rate, regardless of financial situation. But each summer, low-income kids fall behind while middle-and high- income kids keep speeding ahead with learning from enriching experiences at museums, summer camps and family vacations to new places. These learning differences accumulate over the years and by the time fifth grade comes around, low income students have fallen behind their peers by two-to-three academic years. Studies vary, but I have seen some which attribute the entire achievement gap between high and low income students to this effect, called Summer Learning Loss.
So what is the solution? The answer may lie right here in Newport News. An Achievable Dream Academies has a great model for summer learning with its four-week Summer Intersession held the month of July. And Newport News public schools offers some innovative summer learning opportunities featuring STEM — science technology engineering and math — curriculum.
An Achievable Dream is a private-public partnership school, under the authority of the Newport News School Board, which relies on private donations to provide an enriched college-prep education to low-income students. Extended learning time is a key strategy used at the two schools, one housing "the Academy" for elementary students and another location for middle and high school students. During the school year, students have a longer day than other students in the district and also attend Saturday school. During the summer, students attend a four week intersession which is taught by the same teachers who students will have in the fall. This eliminates lost time in the beginning of the year learning routines and classroom expectations. It also gives the teacher extra time to become familiar with the academic needs of students. Teachers and parents have a chance to communicate before school starts about student needs and school routines. The program also reduces the food instability many children experience over the summer by providing breakfast and lunch each day.
But the most valuable part of this program is giving students a head start on math concepts they will need to master during the coming academic year and continuing student access to books and reading. This concept is known by educators as pre-teaching and it not only gives students confidence when they are re-introduced to subject matter during the regular school year but the repeated exposure deepens understanding and long term memory.
Pre-teaching in math and science is a key practice in other Newport News public school summer programs. The school system offered a STEM Summer Learning Lab program to elementary students for 12 days this summer, which featured a preview of important math and science concepts for the coming academic year. When I visited the program recently I saw lots of hands-on learning including children making models of the solar system and then discussing and writing about their projects. Teachers also enjoyed summer school as a chance to learn from each other and share project ideas and teaching methods.
One of the key advantages of summer learning is the energy and excitement generated about a new academic year. The theme of redesign and not being afraid to try something new ran through every program I visited. Our administrators told me this is a particularly important concept when it comes to critically thinking about one's work and writing to encourage students to edit, revise and try again.
So maybe we in Virginia need to redesign our models for summer education and think about providing kids what they really need: more learning time with highly qualified teachers who can keep the academic focus going even over the long hot days of summer.
Simonds is a member of the Newport News School Board and former teacher. The views represented are her own and not of the entire Newport News School Board.