As the school year ends, summer learning loss, or "summer slide," might begin. According to the National Summer Learning Association, the loss amounts to about two months in math for all students and two months in reading for low-income students, while unequal access to summer learning opportunities might account for half the achievement gap between low- and high-income students.
Pittsburgh Public Schools counters summer slide with programs for all ages. One that will serve kids grades K-7 in its 5th year is the Summer Dreamers Academy, with content-rich language arts and math every morning, followed by afternoon activities including swimming, fencing, or a Pirate game—all with the goal of supporting kids academically to close the achievement gap by preventing summer learning loss, according to Project Manager Christine Cray.
“We aim to take all of the academic benefits of summer school and all the fun of summer camp and mash it together into a fantastic six-week experience for kids.”
Just as attendance is an issue during the school year, so it is at the Summer Dreamers Academy. Cray said the best programs in the country boast about 85% attendance. Summer Dreamers has been closer to 70%.
"A third- or fourth-grader can just tell their parent, 'I’m not having fun at that program—I don’t want to go’, and the parent will just accept it and say, 'That’s fine, you don’t have to.’ I always thought that the parent was the person you had to win over, but we’re learning more and more, it’s the kid.”
Starting in 2010, two years of federal stimulus money made it possible to serve everyone who applied—as many as 5,400 students. Relying since then on the school district and private funders, this summer’s budget is $2.3 million, which means accepting about 2,000 of the 2,700 who applied. Stricter deadlines and rejections have led to fewer applications. But Cray says the expense and effort pay off.
“We look at the tests they take in May and the tests they take again in September, and on certain indicators, students who’ve come to Summer Dreamers have either not experienced the summer learning loss we would expect—they hold steady—or, in some cases, actually they’ve made slight gains, which is really, really encouraging, especially because we’re selecting for kids who are most at risk for summer learning loss.”
She said students from low-income families are most at risk. “So if students are in need academically—they’re below grade level—and then also qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, we call them our Tier 1 kids, and as long as they’ve got an application in by the deadline, they’re accepted.”
One of the Summer Dreamers Academy’s many partners is the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP). “We work with the Summer Dreamers Academy to make sure they have opportunities to get library cards, be introduced to books they may want to read and encouraged to visit the library and do some reading on their own," says CLP President and Director Mary Frances Cooper. She added that this is the 83rd year for the Library's summer programs.
"We will visit every neighborhood festival and neighborhood fair that we can. We visit all the schools before school is out so the kids know summer reading is available and we encourage them to do.”
According to Cooper, the CLP does try to get library cards to more students “You can hand out library cards all over the place, but if that just means everybody has a card but they’re not using it, we’re not sure what the value is. So for us, it’s always about not only making sure we’re giving out the cards but finding a way to connect them with the library and introduce them to the services we provide.”
Cooper noted that some families struggle to incorporate library visits into their lives. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have an obligation to those children and those families. It is a priority for our community that all kids have what they need to be successful and to learn and to go on to be contributing members of society. At the library, we believe that our role in that is to encourage the language and literacy experiences that are so key.”