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Redefining summer learning

Right now, thousands of our city’s young people are engaged in programs that aim to mitigate summer learning loss — the loss that researchers discovered in the early ‘80s, right here in Baltimore, to be a key determinant of the achievement gap between students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

This research showed that over the summer, children living in poverty lose two to three months of what they have learned in the previous school year. This is a much greater loss than by students who do not live in poverty. Awareness of this issue has fueled hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in creating academic summer opportunities for young people across the nation and tens of millions in Baltimore.

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But if we want to truly support growth of kids of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds — academically and personally — we need to expand what “summer learning loss” means, how we measure it and what kinds of summer opportunities we make available to our kids.

Families with money can take full advantage of the summer months. For them, summer is a reprieve from the classroom and a ticket to richer learning. Art, science, nature and sports camps — some as much as $350 a week — create opportunities that are crucial to personal development, opportunities to imagine, discover, experiment and expand children’s thinking about the world and themselves. These experiences impact how a kid shows up in the classroom in the fall and their abilities to communicate, build relationships, collaborate, muster confidence when things get challenging and draw from a pool of experiences when making decisions. Many children in poverty have systematically been denied access to these kinds of opportunities for summer experiences because most of these are fee-for-service.

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Leaders in Baltimore City get this. They are investing public and private dollars in summer programs that are both academic, enriching and culturally responsive to students of all racial backgrounds. City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises, as part of her Blueprint for Success, has educating the whole child as her top priority, and her portfolio of summer programs reflect this.

Baltimore’s philanthropic community, through the Summer Funding Collaborative, is united in creating more summer opportunities for young people that develop the whole child, including arts, coding, gardening and sailing. If we want to boost reading and math skills in the summer, we should do it by integrating the enrichment into “the basics” of reading, writing and math, helping develop a wider repertoire of skills and interests for student success.

This summer, Baltimore City Public Schools and Young Audiences partnered to create opportunities for 2,300 students through a free, five-week program called the Summer Arts and Learning Academy. At this academy, kids get an hour and a half of literacy and math instruction every day, from July 8th through Aug. 9th. This instruction looks and feels different. It is delivered by professional artists collaborating with classroom teachers to integrate music, theater, dance and visual arts into the learning process, and many of these art forms are affirming and empowering for students of color because they are intentionally rooted in their historical and cultural experiences.

Additionally, we use the arts and one central book to explore themes like identity, courage and empathy. Just as important, kids spend afternoons exploring their passions in robotics, athletics, singing, dancing and much more. They are being invited to experiment, to take risks, and experience the power of discovery — opportunities that all kids should have. We think that this rich combination of opportunities is the underlying driver of why students’ scores in writing and math grew by 14 percent and 15 percent respectively between the beginning and end of this program.

Last week, 600 pre-K to second graders pet bunnies, fed goats and went on a hay ride through the enchanted forest at Elioak’s farm. Another 1,000 kids — ages 9, 10 and 11 — experienced the excitement and fear of getting on stage at Artscape, and with the help of caring adults in their performing arts classes, felt the exhilaration and pride that comes from overcoming anxiety to confidently demonstrate what they have learned.

While additional math and literacy support for children who are behind is important over the summer, there are other opportunities that are just as important. I encourage all those thinking about summer learning loss in Baltimore to take into account all of the things our kids should be learning and how we can use the summer months to contribute to whole child development.

Otherwise, children in Baltimore City will disproportionately be likely to fall behind in a host of domains beyond academic performance.

Stacie Sanders Evans (stacie@yamd.org) is president and CEO of Young Audiences of Maryland.

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