Learning shouldn't end just because school's out for summer.
By Stacie Sanders Evans and Matthew Boulay
Jun 24, 2017 | 6:00 AM
At Terrapin STEM Camp at St. Mary of the Mills School in Laurel, elementary school students take part in hands-on science activities, from designing LEGO robots to working with 3D printers to touching and holding "creepy crawlers."
Ahhh, another "end" of the school year. Or is it? We typically think, by default, that our children's "education" only happens from September to June. But while this time is certainly important, we need to expand our thinking — and our time frame — if we are going to truly support our children's academic progress and future opportunities. We should be inspiring children to discover their passions and realize their potential all year — and the summer space gives us an opportunity to try new ways to advance education.
"Summer learning loss," in which students lose academic knowledge and skills over summer break, is a significant problem. In a 2013 study by the National Summer Learning Association, 90 percent of teachers reported spending at least three weeks at the beginning of the school year re-teaching content from the previous year; 24 percent of these teachers reported spending five to six weeks reviewing previous lessons.
This loss is even more significant for students from low-income families, who can lose up to three months of academic progress over the summer. By fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave low-income students 2 ½ to 3 years behind their peers in reading and math.
Beyond the impact on academic advancement, imagine what this loss does to a student's motivation, self-esteem and prospects for future academic or personal growth. Imagine a summer filled with the food insecurity and lacking safe, supervised places for informal play or opportunities to experience our city's rich cultural assets like the zoo, the aquarium or our local theatres and museums.
The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) was established to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. Free meals, that meet Federal nutrition guidelines, are provided to all children 18 years old and under at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children.
As we plan for how to best deploy our scarce resources to have a meaningful impact on student success and opportunity, we — families, parents, non-profits, businesses, schools and government officials — should be seeking and expanding ways to stem summer learning loss and help our children develop as whole human beings.
The beautiful thing about summer is that we are not tethered to typical approaches in education. Those doing great work in this space know that learning should not look the same as during the school year. Sometimes we disguise our learning through arts integration, a method of teaching that connects skills and concepts in the arts with skills and concepts in another subject, such as reading or math. Teachers incorporate this method into the learning process to make lessons more meaningful and memorable, giving students the ability to apply their knowledge in creative situations. Students may write songs to remember math formulas or create paintings that summarize the rising action in short stories. It encourages self-expression and ignites interests, and it maintains the educational momentum built during the school year, ensuring that students continue learning and building skills for academic success.
The statistics bear this out. Students in 3rd through 5th grade attending Young Audiences' Summer Arts Academy — a free, five-week arts-integration program for low-income city kids — made greater improvements than their peers on the iReady standardized test. They improved in their percentile ranking in math, while others with no programming or no-arts programming lost ground.
To build on its proven success, the academy will expand by 35 percent this summer, giving creative and exciting hands-on, arts-oriented academic experiences to 1,100 students at four Baltimore City schools. Whether it's writing hip-hop beats to help count or dancing their way through sentence structure lessons, children are exploring interests and using them to actively learn material.
Another successful program, SummerREADS, begins later this month at seven Weinberg Libraries in schools around the city. The free daily program develops children's reading skills with arts-based activities led by teachers, artists and special guest cultural partners, including the Maryland Zoo, the National Aquarium and the Maryland SPCA. Children express themselves in dance, music and theater to practice and improve their reading. This program illustrates the power of partnership and what can happen when organizations come together to benefit our kids.
Arts integration programs leverage students' natural interest in expressing themselves. It keeps them engaged in what they are doing and learning, and that matters more than ever as we enter another summer break. In order to give our children the best opportunities we can, we need to treat education as a year-round need. If we get creative, the options are endless.
Stacie Sanders Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of Young Audiences of Maryland. Matthew Boulay (email@example.com.) is founder and interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association and author of "Summers Matter: 10 Things Every Parent, Teacher, & Principal Should Know About June, July, & August."