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Summer school is about more than academics [Commentary]

Last week, The Sun reported on Baltimore City Public School's (BCPS) efforts to increase academic promotion rates among middle school students by giving them the chance to attend BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) summer learning programs. The article cited a decline in promotion rates for BELL participants, particularly for 6th graders.

While we are disappointed that not all students demonstrate the literacy and math skills they need to be promoted to the next grade, our nonprofit organization, which partners here and nationally with schools to expand learning time in the summer and after school, thinks that focusing on test scores alone obscures important outcomes and raises a key question: What role do summer learning programs have in a student's life?

Academic growth is certainly an important piece of the puzzle. Students who are performing below grade level and who live in low-income neighborhoods stand to benefit the most from such opportunities. Without them, they are most at-risk of regressing even further due to summer learning loss.

A recent report by Rand Education, "Making Summer Count," reviewed the evidence from several studies and found that high-quality summer programs can "mitigate summer learning loss and lead to achievement gains." Outcomes from a rigorous evaluation of BELL's own summer program, which aimed to study the program's impact on the reading performance of elementary school students, found that BELL's approach increases students' reading skills while boosting parental engagement — a key factor in sustaining student success. And data from last summer's program showed that students who started the summer 2.9 years below grade level in reading and two years behind in math gained 30 percent of a grade level in reading and 50 percent of a grade level in math.

While the academic impact of expanded learning time in the summer can be significant, non-cognitive outcomes — increased self-confidence, stronger social and emotional skills, access to nutrition — are often just as important. Such outcomes enable struggling students to return to school in the fall better prepared, interested and engaged in learning. That is why our approach blends rigorous academic instruction in the mornings with a wide range of enrichment activities in the afternoons and community engagement and field trips on Fridays.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a student who is well below grade level, who struggles to keep up with his or her peers and who achieves little success in the classroom. Your self-confidence declines, your expectations decline and your hope for a bright future declines.

Effective summer learning programs create opportunities for struggling students to experience success and to realize that they have the ability to achieve. Some students find success through individualized academic support, others find it by applying academic concepts and skills in an art activity or a science experiment or on the basketball court. Learning self-confidence can be just as important as learning new academic skills, and it can have a lasting impact on their academic trajectory.

Another social and emotional challenge comes from the stress and anxiety caused by living in unsafe neighborhoods, steering clear of gang activity and avoiding negative behaviors such as drug and alcohol use. Students who are subjected to such stress in their everyday lives can find it harder to focus and learn in school. In some cases, they can find it difficult to even attend school.

Last summer, for example, Director of Field Operations Damon Johnson would escort groups of students several blocks through gang territory to help them arrive and depart safely from our program at the William C. March Middle School every day. Our program offered a safe and supportive environment where students benefited from positive mentorship from staff and volunteers and from an outstanding character development and leadership curricula called Dare to Be King / Queen, which was developed locally to help young people overcome the challenges of growing up in rough city neighborhoods.

Yet another benefit of summer learning programs relates to nutrition and fitness. The Food Research Action Council reports that only one in five students who receive free- or reduced-price meals during the previous school year do so during the summer. Working with BCPS, we provide students with a healthy breakfast and lunch daily, plus snacks on field trips and during special events. Furthermore, because our summer program is not only about academic growth, students participate in physical fitness activities and learn about nutrition and healthy living.

Our partnership with BCPS seeks to address much more than academic underperformance and to produce far more significant outcomes than test scores. Comprehensive, thoughtfully-planned and high-quality summer learning programs like ours respect students as whole individuals, and our goals and outcomes reflect that focus on their holistic development. It should also be noted that quality learning experiences like this are made possible not only by BCPS but by donors in Baltimore and across the country who contribute $2 for every $1 invested by our school partners.

We look forward to offering an enriching learning experience for up to 400 middle school students this summer, and we are confident that participating students will head back to school in the fall better prepared to learn and succeed, regardless of the grade they are entering.

Tiffany Gueye is CEO of BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life). Her email is tiffany.gueye@experienceBELL.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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