Jenny Brietigam: Summer programs prove vital

May 30, 2014 

If you stop by Reading and Beyond on a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon, you'll likely see third-grader David reading at a table with Melvin, his volunteer tutor. In September of 2013, when David's mom enrolled him in our tutoring program, his assessment showed that his reading ability was at a beginning first grade level. Two times, every week since September, David and Melvin have met together and practiced reading.

In September, David struggled with his own awareness of his low reading ability. He knew he was behind and he was embarrassed. He didn't want to try and he looked for every opportunity to avoid sitting down with his tutor and cracking open a book. But his tutor was patient and diligent. Melvin didn't give up — he continued to encourage and challenge David, and slowly began to see progress. This week, David took his post-assessment; it showed that he had improved two grade levels since September. David is now reading at a mid-third grade level and as a result, his confidence has skyrocketed. Now, David is willing to read almost anything you place in front of him.

David is a bright and hardworking student, and he is not unlike the thousands of Fresno County students who are economically disadvantaged. Research indicates that due to his family's low socioeconomic status, summer vacation will cause him to fall behind again. Summer learning loss or "summer slide" occurs when students lose academic skills that they gained during the school year. The research shows that on average, low income students regress 2 months during summer vacation. For David this would mean that he may regress half of a grade level in his reading ability.

Summer learning loss happens when students spend summer vacation idly. Studies have shown that this is disproportionately common among low-income students versus their middle-income peers. Compared with their middle-income peers, low-income students often don't have opportunities to be exposed to educational and enrichment experiences, such as summer camp, family vacations, sports leagues and access to books at home.

The importance of accessible, innovative and quality summer learning experiences has become widely documented as a key ingredient in student success. In the 2011 Rand Corporation study entitled Why Summer Matters, researchers noted the following: "While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer, low-income students lose more ground in reading, while their higher-income peers may even gain. Most disturbing is that summer learning loss is cumulative; over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap."

Although summer learning loss increases the achievement gap, prevention doesn't have to look like remedial summer school coursework, which has been a traditional approach for decades. As stated by researchers of John Hopkins School of Education: "Summer learning's new form is an artful blend of core academic learning, hands-on activities, skill-building, arts, sports and meaningful relationships." A high-quality summer program is fun and engaging, while intentionally building skills and knowledge.

David begins the fourth grade in the fall. His participation in a program this summer likely will determine if he begins school with the ability to read on his grade level, or if he will regress and begin the school year behind. The next three months will be crucial to helping David and other low-income students get caught up to their middle-income peers and avoid falling further behind.

The silver lining for David and the thousands of other low-income students in Fresno County is that many local and statewide groups and agencies offer summer learning opportunities. Reading and Beyond is one local organization that will be offering a free summer program.

Summer learning programs are vital allies in an ongoing pursuit to ensure our local children are prepared with the knowledge, skills and confidence to succeed in school, career and life. After June 2, you can visit Reading and Beyond's website at www.readingandbeyond.org for enrollment information about our Summer Academy or to learn about volunteer opportunities to help students such as David.

Jenny Brietigam is a senior program manager for local, non-profit organization Reading and Beyond. Reading and Beyond partners with area families to improve educational achievement and to create systemic change, breaking the cycle of poverty in our community. With a proven passion for transforming lives, our network of programs prepares children and families for a future of success and self-reliance.

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