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Answer Sheet
Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 07/16/2012

School district’s new approach to summer learning

This was written by Linda S. Lane, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

By Linda S. Lane

Today 2,300 Pittsburgh Public Schools K-8 graders will board a bus and head back to school. Why? Because educators and parents in Pittsburgh, like the rest of the nation, know that without learning opportunities during the summer months, the persistent achievement gap between higher- and lower-income kids will continue to grow.

According to the National Summer Learning Association, every year, most youth lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math skills over the summer. Low-income youth also lose more than two months in reading achievement. A recent RAND Corporation report found that quality summer learning programs can help boost student achievement, and our firsthand experience tells us the same.

My own light bulb moment came in April 2009 at NSLA’s annual conference for summer learning advocates and providers. While our district offered summer school, attendance was low and the program was ineffective at stemming summer learning loss. We needed a new summer experience that parents and kids would seek out, that would deliver engaging activities leading to academic gains.

In 2010, we signed on to the New Vision for Summer School network and created Summer Dreamers Academy, a camp-like experience that looks and feels nothing like the outdated, punitive summer school of the past. For five weeks, students eagerly spend their days — 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — with motivated, certified teachers and activities coordinators.

Each camper participates daily in a 90-minute math block and 90 minutes of English/Language Arts. Add to that three hours filled with activities of their choosing — like video game design, “Mad Science,” and fencing — that encourage students to develop new hobbies and passions. Each day, they receive breakfast, lunch and a nutritious snack.

Early results are encouraging. According to an outside evaluation, middle school campers who regularly attended Summer Dreamers in 2010 and 2011 showed larger academic gains on Scholastic Reading Inventory assessments than non-attendees. Summer Dreamers Academy is so well-attended that our applications number twice that which we can enroll. According to the evaluation, during both years of the program, Summer Dreamers met goals to enroll students most at risk for summer learning loss.

Big ideas require funding and ours, like most other districts, was facing tough budget cuts. The stimulus funding that allowed us to launch Summer Dreamers expired in September of last year, and if we had to rely entirely on public funding, Summer Dreamers would be a thing of the past. Our team worked hard to engage the support of local and national philanthropies that understand the perils of a summer devoid of learning. The Heinz Foundation, the Grable Foundation, and the Pittsburgh Foundation all contributed significantly to our first year of programming, and in 2012, through the Fund for Excellence, local foundations have supplied us with about 40% of our total budget.

In 2011, The Wallace Foundation announced a major initiative to test whether summer learning programs produce lasting academic gains for low-income students. Wallace selected six districts, including Pittsburgh, to be a part of the multi-year initiative because all six are considered pioneers in summer learning with many of the features in place that research suggests are vital to progress, such as early planning, rigorous curriculum, teacher training, nonprofit partnerships and broad community support. This year, the Walmart Foundation added 7,000 middle-school slots across five school district summer programs, including Pittsburgh.

Still, we’ve been forced to find ways to cut back and are not willing to risk the core elements that make Summer Dreamers effective. We opted to reduce the number of sites from 14 smaller sites to three larger sites to create travel and staffing efficiencies. We’ve made transportation changes that route students to sites based on home zip codes rather than the school that they attend during the year. Even so, we’ve had to cut enrollment, serving 57 percent fewer students than last year.

We’ve worked to transform our summer experience into something that students and parents are excited about, and that the community can rally around. We continue to bring partners on board to sustain Summer Dreamers and, perhaps as important, spread the word to other school districts about summer being the crucial factor in closing the achievement gap. Summer is just too important a time to forget about learning and waste the hard-won progress made during the school year.

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