Summer Schooling Seen as Key in Closing the Students' Achievement Gap

By Patrick Wall on July 20, 2012 3:17pm 

MOTT HAVEN — When Ramon Gonzalez, the innovative principal of M.S. 223, thinks about his school, he envisions a giant faucet.

During the school year, a wealth of resources streams to the students — from books and computers, to healthy meals, adult role models, structured exercise and field trips.

Then, suddenly, summer arrives and the stream slows to a trickle.

“When kids are not in school,” Gonzalez said, “it cuts off all of those resources.”

So, over the past few years, he and his staff at M.S. 223 have developed a summer camp-school hybrid that keeps the resources flowing and the students from falling behind.

The idea is to provide children with enriching experiences, such as museum visits and music lessons, while preventing the dreaded “summer slide,” when months-worth of material melts from students’ minds like ice cream in the sun.

“We do so much incredible and hard work during the school year,” said Gonzalez. “Then the summer comes and we lose it all.”

The program, called the Summer Bridge Arts Institute, began in 2007 as a one-week, mornings-only orientation for a few dozen incoming sixth-graders. Five years later, it has ballooned into a nine-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week, month-long camp for 200 sixth and seventh graders.

Unlike the mandatory summer classes for students who fail their state tests, the Summer Bridge program is technically voluntary (or as Gonzalez puts it, “unofficially mandatory”), but still students have been eager to join. This year, the program boasts a sizable wait list.

“If I was at home, I’d just be eating, sleeping and hanging out outside,” said Raquell Carpenter, a soon-to-be sixth-grader.

At Summer Bridge, she’ll practice the clarinet and drums, perfect her volleyball serve and sharpen the math and reading skills she’ll need when she begins middle school this fall.

“We have all the subjects we’ll have in September,” said Carpenter, 10. “But it’s fun.”

Gonzalez believes so strongly in the need for year-round learning that he has established a nonprofit, Areté, designed to help other South Bronx schools launch their own “extended learning” programs, including after school and summer classes and, eventually, even boarding facilities.

“We want to influence the system,” Gonzalez said, noting that school-led programs like his own can align summer learning with the school’s curriculum and approach in a way that prepackaged programs cannot.

M.S. 223 has built Summer Bridge at a moment when schools systems in cities across the country — including New York — have begun to act on research that shows the lasting damage that school-less summers can inflict on children from low-income families.

During the summer, lower-income students tend to lose more than two months worth of reading skills, research has shown. Meanwhile, their middle-class peers, whose families have the means to enroll them in rigorous enrichment camps or monitor their weekly book logs, make slight gains in reading over the same period.

As the summers pile up, the achievement gap grows.

In fact, nearly two-thirds of the school achievement gap between high- and low-income students can be traced back to how they spent their summers during their elementary years, according to a widely cited 2007 Johns Hopkins study.

“We really view summer as a dangerous time for kids in high-poverty communities,” said Jeff Smink, vice president of policy for the National Summer Learning Association, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that helps schools and community groups develop summer learning programs.

Last year, Smink helped the city’s Education Department design a three-year pilot program called Summer Quest, which, like the one at M.S. 223, fuses academics, exercise and enrichment.

Designed for students who scored high enough on the state tests to avoid summer school, but who are still behind, Summer Quest pairs 13 South Bronx schools with nonprofit partners to develop hands-on courses that mix learning and recreation.

"The idea is to prevent summer learning loss from taking place," Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said earlier this month when the program launched. “It’s learning, but in the context of having fun.”

But even as the idea of summer learning catches on, the perennial question of costs remains.

M.S. 223’s program, which is free for students and does not receive DOE money, relies on private funding from the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, Yale Alumni, the Charles Hayden Foundation and David and Elsa Brule to cover expenses. Summer Quest runs on $2.4 million in private money.

Whether the DOE is able, or willing, to find a place in its budget for a system-wide summer learning program for students that didn’t fail the state tests is unclear.

“There are funding streams out there,” said NSLA’s Jeff Smink. “The challenge is that districts really have to prioritize the summer.”

During a recent lunch break, a group of M.S. 223 teachers listed the ways that the benefits of summer learning justify its cost.

Educators can try out new lessons and techniques, and bond with challenging students, amid the smaller classes and longer sessions of the summer. Students are able to meet new peers and review the past year’s content, allowing them to dive headfirst into fresh material when the new school year begins.

And, along the way, the children may end up forming a few lasting memories.

On the first week of Summer Bridge, 45 students took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they found inspiration for the Greco-Roman reliefs they would construct back at school. For some of the 12- and 13-year-olds, it was their first trip to a museum.

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