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Build on summer success

The Baltimore Sun

Not that long ago, summer programs for children didn't exist in many Baltimore neighborhoods. For far too many students in our city, summer was a dreadful waste, not a stimulating season of new experiences and opportunities.

But in the last three years, Baltimore has made dramatic strides in embracing and expanding high-quality summer learning opportunities. School district leaders have steadily increased funding for such programs - up from just a few hundred thousand dollars to about $10.5 million this year. The district also has voluntarily enrolled more and more children each summer - from 12,492 kids in 2005 to 23,510 last year. While much remains to be done, the school system is to be applauded for its vision and hard-fought efforts to extend the promise of an enriching summer to more young people in the city.

This sort of commitment makes a profound difference. We know that high-quality summer learning opportunities have a positive effect on the education, health and safety of all children, especially those living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

Our research shows that children don't just stay in an academic holding pattern over the summer; they lose ground. Kids from low-income families lose nearly three months of grade-level equivalency over the summer, compared with an average one-month loss for children from middle-class families.

In fact, researchers have just completed a major study showing that 65 percent of the achievement gap between poor and affluent ninth-graders is a result of the unequal summer learning experiences they had as elementary school students. Johns Hopkins researchers studied 790 Baltimore public school children from the first grade through age 22, using test scores, school records and student reports and interviews to determine high school graduation and college attendance. The study traced the disparities between the two socioeconomic groups of children and found that the stark differences between their early summer learning experiences accounted for much of the significant achievement gap.

We must give low-income children experiences over the summer months that build academic skills, and high-quality summer programs offer such a solution. These programs increase students' motivation and improve their performance during the school year.

For the first time, the Baltimore school system has hired a nationally respected nonprofit group - the BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) Foundation - this summer to do that. The district is spending nearly $1.5 million to bring a comprehensive, high-quality national summer learning program to serve more than 1,900 elementary school students who need academic improvement. The program will run for six weeks, starting next Monday, in 12 low-performing elementary schools. In the mornings, BELL teachers will teach reading and math for nearly three hours. After lunch and recess, other instructors will lead structured enrichment activities, such as music, art, drama, dance, physical education and hands-on science. Fridays are reserved for guest speakers, field trips and community service projects. National education experts are closely watching this BELL partnership because it has the potential to produce meaningful gains in kids' lives and could be replicated elsewhere.

The school district also has been an active partner with SuperKids Camp, one of the nation's very best summer learning programs. The camp, run by the Parks & People Foundation, builds reading skills in 1,000 rising second- and third-graders while offering engaging enrichment activities. Not only does the school system help recruit students, but it also funds this exemplary program

The shift in Baltimore's approach was brought about by leadership on the Board of School Commissioners and at the top of the district, starting with its former CEO, Bonnie S. Copeland, and continuing with interim CEO Charlene Cooper Boston. Working with partners across the city, the district has made solid progress in recognizing the value of high-quality summer learning programs and in investing in those programs.

But there's still a long way to go. The district must enroll even more students in high-quality programs. And that will take more state and city funding to allow low-income families to take advantage of the same kinds of high-quality summer-enrichment programs that well-off families can afford. Without such a financial commitment from the public, summer will remain a time when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Ron Fairchild is executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at the Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail is rfairchild@jhu.edu.

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