Don't let their brains melt

Avoid summer school (and summer brain drain) with a little e-learning.

By Hank Pellissier

"10, 9, 8, 7 ..."

My two children are ecstatically counting down the number of school days left because they’re eager for a long, mindless summer, where they can forget 30% of what they learned during the academic year. That’s right: Research says students can lose up to three months of learning over the sunny holiday season.

I wanted my children to retain their math and reading skills and perhaps nurture their budding curiosity in science and history. But whenever I mentioned summer school, my proposal was greeted with horrific tantrums and tears. “That’ll ruin our summer!” they screamed. “We want to have fun!”

I needed a new scheme. A ploy that would build their smarts without triggering their hysteric resistance. That’s why I was willing to try ... online summer school programs. E-learning, I hoped, would halt the erosion of their reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Plus we could sample intriguing electives their regular school doesn’t offer. With luck, my little scholars would even get a jump-start on the upcoming year.

But where to start? After contacting and researching a range of online schools, I offer a tidy synopsis: Five options my family — or yours — can use to prevent painful backsliding in the academic off-season.

Photo credit: LJMoo/Flickr

K12 Web site

K12: Online schooling's standard-bearer

K12 provides an abundance of high school classes. All the basics are available (algebra, biology, history, American literature, etc.), plus several electives for tech-savvy students like graphic and web design. The four-week courses cost $425, which includes an online tutor. K12 only offers world languages to elementary and middle school pupils this summer, but the price is right: $119 for a four-week course (no teacher included).

With its course overviews, the website is easy to navigate and its curriculum far more challenging than many brick-and-mortar schools'. Every K12 class is fully accredited, which explains the higher price tag. The best bargain K12 offers is the "Elementary School World Language Sampler" — only $69 to practice a smattering of French, Spanish, and German (ideal if your family is tripping to Europe).

Bottom line: K12 is fantastic for high schoolers who want to earn credit, especially those seeking Web-savvy skills.


Time4Learning: Kid-friendly interactivity

Time4Learning offers summer school for grades K-8, science for grades 1-6, and social studies for grades 2-7. More than 1,000 student-paced lessons are available for $19.95 per month for the first child and $14.95 per month for each additional child. A 14-day trial period, with a 100% money-back guarantee, allows parents to see if the programs work for their kids.

Unfortunately, Time4Learning’s website is so densely packed it’s confusing, and I couldn’t figure out how to play the “Playground” games. Still, the demo lesson adventure games are marvelously intriguing — I happily dithered away an entire hour, and my 10-year-old was immediately engrossed in the games. (One helps students develop math skills by selling “cyber” candy!) Membership includes lesson plans for adults as well as printable worksheets.

Bottom line: Kid-friendly with an abundance of lessons to choose from at an affordable monthly rate.

SmartTutor Web site

SmartTutor: Smart but not spendy

SmartTutor has K-5 reading and math programs, with the promise that your child’s skills can be improved if they use the lessons just 15 minutes a day! Sounds impossible, but SmartTutor’s approach is shrewd. Initially, it evaluates your child’s knowledge with questions. If your child answers correctly, the questions get harder. If mistakes are made, queries get simpler. Using this strategy, SmartTutor provides customized lessons appropriate for every child's level. (Just make sure kids don’t accidentally mix up their programs — my younger daughter used my elder one’s program, and suddenly my elder daughter was getting reports that she was four years behind in phonics.) Customers can try it the first 14 days for free; then it's $17.99 per month for the first child and $9.99 per month for the second child.

The downside is that SmartTutor’s website is clogged with too many testimonials, resources, and links, so my suggestion is to go immediately to “Free Resources” and sample the math and reading activities. This will help you decide if they're right for your growing Einstein.

Bottom line: Costs very little time or money, and the games are as riveting as Time4Learning's.

National Connections Academy

National Connections Academy: Designed to stop summer brain drain

National Connections Academy offers a “Summer Smarts” program for grades 3-8 that is designed to “minimize summer learning loss” with its review of math and language arts. The cost is $95 per course. For high schoolers, recovery credit courses are offered in 28 different subjects ($275 each), plus there are 54 enrichment courses at $325 a pop. National Connections Academy’s K-8 classes are structured to simultaneously impart a wide range of computer skills, and the high school course list includes digital photography and emergent computer technology.

The website is easy to navigate, but its corporate appearance may not appeal to youngsters. Plus, I only found two demos.

Bottom line: Though the “Summer Smarts” concept is ideal for parents like me, the website may not hook kids as readily.


E-Tutor: College courses for kindergarten?

Are your children interested in astronomy, ecology, or politics? E-Tutor has an intriguing catalog of science and social studies courses for every age level from kindergarten through high school. There's no mention of “summer school” on the website, but the entire catalog is available year-round. Costs run from $149 per month for each K-5 class to $249 per month for middle and high school class, with an extra $100-$150 per month if your child wants a tutor. E-Tutor classes are only available for credit if you get permission from your regular school beforehand, but they're all “aligned with state and national goals and standards.”

The best way to navigate e-Tutor's site is to click on “Take a Tour” and embark on the “Guided Program.” Also, try the “Sample Lesson Modules” — I virtually dissected a frog. Tip: If you're confused (I was), call e-Tutor at (877) 687-7200 — the receptionist is helpful and courteous.

Bottom line: The wide-ranging science classes are ideal for college prep smarties, if you're willing to deal with the accreditation-process hassle.

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.