Valley Voices

Michael R. Seward: Halt brain drain and weight gain

FresnoJuly 11, 2014 

For some children, summer is a time of boundless joy. It's a break from the rigors of the school year and an opportunity to attend camps with friends, participate in sports leagues, visit museums and travel to new places.

For many others, summer marks a period of lethargy – both mental and physical. To the dismay of educators and health officials, tens of thousands of California children each summer are falling behind in reading and math and also gaining excess weight.

During the months of summer vacation, research indicates that, on average, children fall one month behind where they left off academically in the spring. Low-income children are less likely to have access to a variety of summer enrichment opportunities. This loss in learning during the summer impacts disadvantaged children the most, accounting for as much as two-thirds of the total gap in their academic achievement compared with their more advantaged peers.

Children also tend to put on additional weight during the summer — equal to half the total weight gain children acquire during the entire year.

The Department of Defense estimates that 71% of young Americans are unable to serve in the military primarily because they are too poorly educated, have a serious criminal record or are too overweight. As a retired admiral and one of more than 450 retired admirals and generals with the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, I view this as a matter of national security.

Summer doesn't have to be a period of brain drain and weight gain. Voluntary summer learning programs blend academic instruction with other activities, including enrichment, physical activity and community service. A coalition of school leaders, educators, parents and advocates have been working collaboratively to shed light on the positive impact of high-quality summer learning programs.

I recently had the privilege of seeing one such summer learning program first hand. The Central Enrichment Summer Achievement (CESA) program at Central East High School in Fresno caters to roughly 450 students who voluntarily participate in a comprehensive, 24-day program. These students engage in reading-comprehension classes; projects focused on science, technology, engineering and math; daily physical activity and various electives that keep them engaged and energized.

I was thoroughly impressed by the students, teacher fellows, program leaders and organizers who have successfully built a high-quality summer learning experience over the past six summers. Fresno should take great pride in this excellent program.

Unfortunately, summer programming has been devastated by cutbacks in state funding over recent years. At the state level, important legislation such as the Expanded Learning Enhances Student Success bill (Senate Bill 1221) seeks to improve and update California's primary resources for expanded learning programs and is worthy of widespread public support.

At the local level, changes in school financing and accountability systems under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) provide educators, school leaders and communities a great opportunity to reinvest in summer learning. Summer learning programs can meet school district and LCFF priorities by boosting student achievement and building student engagement in their schools and communities.

In addition to positive academic initiatives, summer sports and physical activities can have an impact on a young person's ability to become physically fit and achieve and maintain a healthy weight. This is important, since approximately 40% of California ninth-graders are overweight or obese and 7 in 10 California adolescents do not get the recommended hour of physical activity daily.

Helping kids to become more involved in activities and supporting parents' efforts to emphasize more healthy food and exercise during the summer months are natural choices to enact positive change. In addition, since sugar-sweetened beverages such as sports and energy drinks are the largest source of added sugar in the diets of children, it's important to promote hydration with clean and fresh water.

Providing children with effective ways to improve their academic skills and stay physically active during the summer months can ensure that more young people are able to lead healthier, more productive lives.

While we are at it, these same investments will help us ensure the security of our great nation.

 

Michael R. Seward resides in Hilmar. He is a retired U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral.

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