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Make Summer a Season of Learning

Jacob Leos-Urbel

Summer is a time full of promise, offering young people the potential for enriching, creative, educational activities, and a break from the school-year routine. Yet, we know that summer experiences and opportunities for children and youth vary widely. Children in poverty have considerably fewer opportunities for learning outside of school on average compared to middle class children, including during the summer. Some research suggests that differences in developmental and educational experiences during the summer are a major contributor to the achievement gap that exists along racial and economic lines.

While all children have access to public schooling, during the summer months the balance of responsibility for providing for children’s learning and development shifts largely to students and their families and communities. Although some public funds certainly are devoted to children and youth through, for example, summer school, summer camps, and summer breakfast and lunch programs, learning opportunities are considerably less systematic and universally available in the summer time than during the school year. Unfortunately, the students who may benefit the most from enriching summer activities are often the least likely to have access to them. Moreover, there remains some debate over what the goals and activities for summer programming should be; in particular, how different or similar programs should be relative to what children do during the school year.

Recognition of the importance of summer learning has increased considerably over the last decade, and a growing body of research provides evidence about what is important and what works during the summer. A recent Gardner Center implementation study of the Aim High summer program, which serves primarily low income middle school students in northern California, points to several important strategies. These include intentional efforts to foster a positive culture with opportunities for youth to form meaningful relationships with adults; providing a mix of engaging academic and enrichment activities; and real efforts towards continuity by engaging youth for multiple summers during middle school. Program attendance rates average more than 90 percent—no small feat for a voluntary program—and participants reported that the program provided a caring environment, and increased important knowledge and skills such as understanding what courses they need to take in high school to prepare them for college.

Other research has shown the importance of summer opportunities for high school students, and points to how appropriate summer programming may vary by age and developmental stage. For instance, recent research provides evidence of the benefits of summer jobs for high school students. A study of New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program finds that, beyond the direct benefits of gaining work experience and earning income, high school students with summer jobs do better in the following school year. High school students that get summer jobs have higher school attendance rates, and take and pass more state exams required for graduation. Benefits are even greater for students who have the opportunity to work for two or three summers. Again, participation rates during the summer were quite high, and youth demand for these jobs far outweighs the number of slots available.

Summer is both a huge opportunity and an important equity issue. Thoughtful programming during the summer, when made available especially to those who may not otherwise have access to enriching summer activities, represents a strategic investment in our youth that can fill a meaningful void and keep youth engaged and learning.

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