By Jennifer VanBuren
The school bell rings one last time and the kids are free! Free to get out there and….what? Some families will take day trips to NASA, the Austin Zoo, Sea World or the Mayborn Planetarium, places that provide education in the richest of experiential environments. Some may pack up and spend a week or two at an overnight camp adventure or attend any number of the fabulous camp opportunities in the Austin area. If family resources are available, summertime gives children an opportunity to develop their interests and skills, but these opportunities are cost-prohibitive for many, if not most, families.
Summer slide starts
Studies show that on average, students re-enter school one month behind where they left off in the spring. This is often referred to as the “summer slide.”Of course, this is just the average learning loss. Some students will return to school with new and improved skills while some have fallen even further behind than the average. Students in low-income households are hit harder by summer learning loss. All students tend to lose ground in math over the summer, but children of low-income families lose ground in reading skills, while their peers actually improve.
According to a study conducted by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization, the summertime loss of knowledge and skills is cumulative over the student’s career and is responsible for widening the achievement gap across the economic spectrum. The study analyzed existing literature and conducted field research to determine summer learning loss and gain and identify characteristics of effective summer programs as well as their costs.
“Despite long-term efforts to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students, low-income students continue to perform at considerably lower levels than their peers from higher-income families, particularly in reading,”said Jennifer McCombs, study co-author and a senior policy researcher at RAND. “Instruction during the summer has the potential to stop summer learning losses and propel students toward higher achievement.”
Enrichment programs offer antidote
Here is a breakdown of numbers in Texas: With 180 days of school and 7 hours of school per day, only 21.6%
of Texas children’s waking hours are spent in school. Child advocates realize that every waking moment is an opportunity for a child to grow and develop. Out of School Time (OST) programs in Texas offer academic and developmental enrichment opportunities for Texas children before and after school, on weekends, during the summer and other school breaks.
In May of 2013, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 503, which established the Texas Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) Council as law. According to their literature found at txpost.org, Texas Partnership for Out of School Time (TXPOST) is a “statewide collaborative of public and private partners dedicated to improving outcomes for Texas youth.”The overall goals of these out of school time programs are far reaching; they include promoting engaged learning, supporting families, encouraging positive youth development, ensuring safe communities and in the long run, providing Texas with a strong workforce.
RAND’s “Making Summer Count”report not only demonstrates the need for summer programming, it also gives recommendations on how school districts and community groups can set up successful summer programs. The most successful summer programs have many of the same characteristics as successful school year programs, including small class sizes, qualified instructors, individualized instruction and parental involvement.
In order to provide affordable summer programs, schools, community groups and parents can apply to the many funding opportunities at the federal, state and local level. Researchers recommend that districts also share the responsibility by partnering with community-based organizations, recreation centers and local non-profit groups, such as the YMCA. These programs provide summer experiences that are more typical of camps that are available to families with average income, such as canoeing, swimming, sports and field trips.
Food fuels learning
In addition to educational and developmental opportunities, kids who rely on the school for free and reduced lunches still need nutritious meals. In areas where there is a concentration of children living in low-income families, Summer Food Services Programs (SFSP) can be set up to provide free breakfast, lunch, snacks or dinner to all children under 18. These programs serve the child’s needs for physical and social development, and the children return in August ready to learn.
How does this work? At the federal level, the summer programs are managed by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Local groups such as school districts, camps, non-profit organizations and other government agencies can apply to be approved providers of a Summer Food Services Program (SFSP). With their cost reimbursed, summer programs can make meals available to families for a reduced, affordable cost.
According to the FNS, “the best SFSP sites have organized, well-run activities that keep the interest of the children and teens coming back to the site day after day.”By providing fun activities such as drama, sports, arts and crafts, kids show up and stay. Other summer feeding programs offer mentoring, tutoring, computer training, reading and music and special guest presenters, such as firemen and local business owners. Some school programs are half-day, with a free breakfast followed by enrichment activities and ending with a lunch provided by the school nutrition program.
Tax plans ease burden
The financial sting that comes with the cost of summer camp can be eased if families take advantage of the Internal Revenue Service’s federal income tax credit for dependent care expenses. Parents can also consider setting up a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account, which allows parents to utilize pre-tax income to pay for summer care while parents work, attend school or look for work.
There are programs out there that allow all children to participate in enriching summer activities at affordable rates. The trick is finding them. Through parent education and communication from service providers, kids and parents can find their way to one or more of these programs, and all children can start the new school year ready to learn.
Jennifer VanBuren is an educator, advocate and mother of three school-aged boys.