Summer learning that really works

Introducing summer school 3.0 – the new and improved version that kids actually like – and quite possibly the key to closing the achievement gap.

Set up for wetlands experiment
Adding pollutants to wetlands
Documenting what he observed
Windmill built by students
Alexis Valle and Julio Lagunas experiment with environmental engineering in their free summer learning program. Photo: Jessica Kelmon

By Jessica Kelmon

Make no mistake: Alexis Valle is not here for remedial purposes. “Basically, you turn off your brain over summer and forget everything you learned the year before,” Alexis says. He shakes his head disdainfully at the prospect of whiling away summer days at home watching TV.

If this were a teacher or a summer learning loss researcher, the comment wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But this is a kid. And he’s only 11.

Small for his age, bright, and articulate, Alexis talks animatedly about the windmill he built recently at his school’s four-week summer learning program. A fifth grader at Fair Oaks Elementary School in Pleasant Hill, CA (GreatSchools Rating 3), he asked to participate in the program, which offers 90 minutes of hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) experiment time each day — a lot, considering the average California elementary schooler typically gets 108 minutes of science per week. The curriculum is ambitious, tackling environmental engineering and renewable energy challenges — like cleaning up an oil spill, designing a dam to protect the wetlands, or building a windmill.

“We learned a lot about solar energy,” Alexis says, proffering the most telling example of a child’s learning engagement: “Then I convinced my parents to buy solar panels and saved the family a lot of money.”

Reversing summer slide

Every year millions of kids attend summer programs designed to improve academic skills, but many millions more don’t get access to these programs. Johns Hopkins University researchers estimate that as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap can be traced to summer learning loss in elementary school. And because that loss is cumulative, the achievement gap may never be closed without effective summer learning programs. But what kind of programs really work? And, if you’re a parent searching for a quality summer program for your child, what should you look for? Is a fun, campy learning environment what kids need — or should there be an intense focus on academics or test-taking strategies?

Alexis’ school is one of 61 schools across 13 districts (including Oakland, Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles) participating in California’s statewide Summer Matters campaign — a group effort to design and run effective, meaningful summer learning, launched by a coalition of nonprofits, school districts, and private funders. Together, they’re attempting to tackle the “summer slide” — the average of two months of math (and for children from low-income families about two months of reading, too) students lose over the summer — both by offering a research-based curriculum but also by studying participants to learn what exactly summer programs can accomplish. Summer Matters research — and Alexis’ experience — offer parents a glimpse at what exceptional summer learning looks like, and help explain why, despite the best of intentions, some summer programs don’t work at all.

Summer school 3.0

At Fair Oaks, like all campuses participating in the Summer Matters campaign, the adults have worked hard to incorporate “camp-like” elements — theme days, arts and crafts, big kickball games — but the kids aren’t fooled. They know it’s summer school and they like it. If summer school 1.0 is the old-school model where you show up and smoke in the bathroom, and 2.0 is mandatory drill-and-kill remediation to prove you’re not a child left behind, then this is summer school 3.0 — an inspired place of cool, project-based learning where the kids actually want to be.

According to research, the best summer programs offer a blend of academic and social elements. These programs yield positive student outcomes such as better school attendance (which research shows is directly tied to graduation rates), increased academic achievement, more motivation to learn, stronger feelings of belonging, and less risky behavior.

A novel approach

Slashed budgets mean far fewer school districts can offer any learning programs — be they elective or mandatory — over the summer. The goal of the Summer Matters campaign is to help reverse that trend — and organizers are making innovative choices to keep summer learning costs down. One example: hiring and training afterschool staff, typically paid less than teachers, to lead summer programs — including STEM projects like building windmills (curriculum cost-saver: experiments designed and vetted by science nonprofits like Techbridge). In the long run, summer programs may actually save money. The National Summer Learning Association estimates that re-teaching students what they forgot over the summer costs as much as $1,500 per student. Meanwhile, the Mount Diablo Unified School District's summer learning programs (including Alexis’ program) serve roughly 500 students at five schools for $105,000.

Awesome gains

To make their case, the Summer Matters coalition collected data at summer programs in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Sacramento in 2012. The results are compelling: participants have better vocabularies, stronger reading skills, improved attitudes toward reading and school, and better work habits. Parents also reported school-related social-emotional gains in their kids, such as making friends, showing leadership skills, and getting along better with adults. All without school-year stresses like homework or test pressure — and the kids had fun.

STEM frontier

Despite the cool experiments, it’s not a magic bullet for STEM attrition – at least not so far. Research shows that a third of fourth graders show negative attitudes toward STEM subjects, and by eighth grade it’s up to half. And while Alexis says he wants to be a scientist, only 57 percent of the kids who participated in Summer Matters programs last year said the same. The upside is that the program may be on the right track: the vast majority of Summer Matters participants said they learned a lot about STEM, they liked it, and 85 percent said they’d like to learn more about science. It’s a start.

But that’s hardly the main point. Alexis’ program is one of a dozen in California's Bay Area with a summer science element — but it’s just a bonus. The quality summer learning experience that results in better attendance, improved reading and vocabulary skills, positive engagement with school, and character traits that help kids succeed in school — those are the point.

Alexis says his experience conducting science experiments — sometimes over and over — has taught him a thing or two. “There’s always going to be that thing you need to fix, then you’ll get it to work,” he says. Summer learning experts could not have said it better.

Signs of a strong summer program

So what should parents look for when choosing a summer learning program? “We have 80 indicators of quality in a summer program,” says Katie Brackenridge, a senior director at the Partnership for Children and Youth, a nonprofit driving the Summer Matters campaign, research hat on. For parents, she points to these five essentials:

  • A friendly, fun, engaging summer camp culture. Think group songs, fun routines, and call-and-response attention getters (one program ingeniously wove Dr. Seuss into every aspect of their organization). It’s learning — but it should also be fun.
  • A daily lineup of activities and fieldtrips that expose kids to new experiences, encourage kids to work in teams or groups, sprinkle in academic skill-building (like reading a play and then acting it out, or learning physics principles for an experiment), and get kids outside to run around and explore.
  • Clear directions and clear expectations. If you can’t figure out what the kids are supposed to do, how will your child?
  • Clear reasons why particular learning activities (STEM or not) are chosen – and how well the experiments and projects are explained. Look for the “intentionality” of each lesson, experiment, and experience.
  • A positive environment. “It can be loud and chaotic,” Brackenridge says, “but not rife with discipline problems.”

is an associate editor at GreatSchools.org.