Monday was the last day of school for public school students in Baltimore and Baltimore County, and the rest of the area school systems will wrap up by week's end. For most students, parents and educators, this will be remembered as a challenging (and extended) year with stronger-than-usual storms stemming from both a brutal winter and a debate about education reform. Call it the year of the common snow.

The temptation after such a trying nine months might be to regard the next several purely as vacation time — at least once matters of child care, summer camp or family getaways are factored in. And while there ought to be a certain amount of fun and family time in the life of every school-age child, the mistake would be to regard education purely as something that takes place only in the context of the 185-day school calendar.

Studies show that summer vacation often brings a phenomenon known as "summer loss" — a drop in reading skills. Researchers have long suspected that when students stop reading in the summer, their skills atrophy like an athlete who stops exercising — you use it or lose it. And, unfortunately, children tend to read less when they reach their teen years, and it's a problem that appears most often in low-income neighborhoods.

Further, scientists suspect the summer loss effect is cumulative, meaning that when you have a summer drop one year followed by a summer drop the next and the next, the losses stack up. The result is the gap between high-achieving students and their low-achieving peers grows wider and wider each year until it's difficult, if not impossible, to bridge. That gap can spell the difference between whether college is in a student's future or not.

There is one remedy to summer loss, and it doesn't necessarily require enrolling a child in a formal summer learning program nor need it be costly. It is to make sure every child from elementary school age and beyond reads each day during the summer months — at least 20 minutes per day is recommended as the minimum to keep a youngster engaged.

Not every family has an inventory of age-appropriate books waiting to be read, of course, but most every public library has a summer reading program with long lists of recommended books for every age, and it doesn't cost a dime. Children can sign up, track their reading progress and even earn some token prizes for their efforts. The Baltimore County Public Library's Summer Reading Club kicked off Monday while the Enoch Pratt Free Library's various summer reading programs for kids, teens and adults are already in full swing.

Parents ought to set an example and join in. Reading isn't a chore, and the reading programs frequently incorporate newspapers, magazines and other types of material into their programs. Library patrons who can afford it should also consider making a donation to support the summer reading program. Baltimore County, for instance, sells t-shirts for $15 each to help defray their costs.

School systems often assign reading, particularly for high school and advanced students to get a jump-start on fall classes. But even for these advanced kids, the reading list need not be limited to "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "A Tale of Two Cities." Popular fiction like the Harry Potter books is usually an easy sell, so are many of the other must-read young adult series that are as likely to show up on the silver screen as blockbuster movies as in the local bookstore these days.

Experts can always debate what the ideal reading list might look like, but it's clear enough that the most important step is simply to make reading a daily activity. Making sure all children have access to books is one of any public library's most vital roles, but parents and others should take some responsibility, too. Children's books make great charitable donations — and great gifts to neighbors, friends and family who could use them in the coming weeks.

Summer reading may not be the magic bullet to cure all that ails public education, but it's the best strategy available to maintain reading proficiency from June until September. That's not a sacrifice for school-weary students, it's a ticket to better opportunities ahead.


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