116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For many students, summer means vacation and relaxation. For some, when they return to class in the fall, it also means evidence of the summer slide.
“Summer slide” is the phenomenon in which students lose academic skills during the warmer months, when they are out of the classroom and no longer in a more structured learning routine.
Some studies show that students may lose as much as a month of knowledge over the summer, meaning that they actually start the school year four weeks behind where they ended the previous one, according to information from the RAND Corporation's “Making Summer Count” report.
Curt Neilsen, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching at the University of Northern Iowa's College of Education, witnessed the consequences of the summer slide during his 23 years as a classroom teacher.
“My experience would be that when kids come back, they have typically regressed a little bit, but it varies among students. It depends on what they did over the summer,” he said. “When you don't use it, you lose it.”
Fighting the slide
Kids on Course, a community organization devoted to serving students at Harrison and Van Buren elementary schools, is among the latest Corridor organizations attempting to combat the summer slide. It's the express goal of the group's summer camp, which meets for four hours, four days a week and serves 52 students preparing to enter third and fourth grades this fall.
“If we could start in the fall where we ended in the spring, how much further ahead will they finish?,” wondered Amy Evans, an instructional coach and former classroom teacher in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
Evans is the lead teacher for the camp, which started Monday and runs through July 3. Each week is broken into a theme - the first week focuses on plants - and the day is divided into instruction and enrichment, with classroom activities all tied to specific state standards, Evans said. Thursdays are reserved for field trips. The entire camp is offered to students free of cost.
The model, which relies on a mix of certified district teachers to deliver instruction and area volunteers to handle activities and supervision, is similar to the Iowa City Community School District's 21st Century Community Centers summer session. For both camps, district staff recommended students whom they thought could benefit from participating.
When the I.C. program, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days each week and is free to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, starts up later this summer, it will operate out of five district elementary schools: Twain, Lemme, Grant Wood, Kirkwood and Weber. Aside from at Lemme, which begins Monday and ends July 19, the program begins July 10 and runs through Aug. 9.
“What we're really trying to do is level the playing field and provide some opportunities for the summer for kids whose families don't have the resources to take them on vacation, to sign them up for camp (or) things that families with more resources have the opportunity to do,” said Joan VandenBerg, youth and family development coordinator for the district. “By midsummer, the kids are getting bored being home and the parents are, too. It also helps the kids get into a routine so they can hit the ground running.”
The Kids on Course camp operates in two Title I schools, designated as such because a high percentage of students in each building qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a standard commonly used to measure poverty.
The Iowa City district's program caters to but does not exclusively serve that population of students, but VandenBerg estimated that the majority of the 287 participants did fit that demographic. The camp is free for those learners and $150 per student weekly for other families, though scholarships are available.
Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, corroborated that point and quoted research that showed these learners are losing as much as three months of reading skills each summer.
He called summer learning “particularly critical” for those students.
“You have these kids losing (knowledge) over the summer, coming into the school year, progressing at the same rate but never really catching up,” Huggins said.
The summer slide can even contribute to the oft-discussed achievement gap between students of color and learners of lower socioeconomic status as compared to their wealthier and white peers. The learning losses are cumulative, Huggins said, resulting in a chasm between the types of classes and scholastic opportunities students qualify for as they progress.
The Kids on Course camp is a welcome summer alternative for 9-year-old Artrice Johnson, who just completed third grade at Van Buren.
“It's fun and we get to do fun activities,” she said, noting that she'd be most likely at home watching TV were it not for the program. “I like being here so I don't have to be bored in the summer.”
VandenBerg said students are not assessed during the summer program. However, data from 2012 program students shows that 40.57 percent of them improved their performance on math assessments, while only 26.11 percent of nonprogram students fell into that category, between the end of the 2011-12 school year and the start of the 2013-14 academic year.
Evans is hoping to replicate that success with the Kids on Course camp. Because the camp is run with the support of the district, staff members have access to student learning data. Participants are tested at the start of camp and again at the end, with an eye on seeing maintained or even increased skill proficiency.
Both Kids on Course and the Iowa City program get significant financial assistance in the form of charitable donations. Huggins said one problem with the conventional approach to summer learning is that many school districts view it as a luxury, something on which to spend superfluous dollars. He argued that summer learning can support district allocations on curriculum, professional development and other instructional costs.
“All of that is diminished if we let that step back in the summer,” he said.
Summer learning can take many forms, however, and it doesn't have to mean structured camps or the elimination of vacations and relaxation. Parents can encourage their students simply to read throughout the season and stay engaged.
“Something is happening over the summer, and if you don't make the investment to move forward, you're moving backward,” he said. “It doesn't have to be about more school. It's making sure that summer is a great break from school but not a great break from learning.”