Jay Mathews: Summer school is a great tool, if only more students would use it

By Jay Mathews
Monday, June 28, 2010

This Wednesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Brent Elementary School at 301 North Carolina Ave. SE, the D.C. public schools will hold a chancellor's forum on how to add useful learning to your child's summer. Several groups, such as the D.C. Public Library, the University of the District of Columbia Science and Engineering Center, and even Madame Tussaud's, will have booths about their summer programs.

But the District, like other urban districts, will have a summer school that includes only about a fifth of its students. Many people laugh that off: Who in their right mind wants to go to summer school? Give the poor kids a break.

That old-fashioned attitude turns out to be educationally bankrupt. Summer learning loss has been shown to be a likely cause of low achievement in cities such as Washington. Karl L. Alexander of Johns Hopkins University found that by ninth grade, accumulated learning loss for low-income children accounted for two-thirds of the achievement gap between them and higher-income children who had summer learning opportunities, such as trips to the library and museums.

A significant but overlooked factor is that one group of D.C. students -- those who attend public charter schools -- are far more likely to attend summer school than those in regular public schools. Nona Mitchell Richardson, spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said an estimated 9,900 of 28,000 charter students (35 percent) in the city are expected to be in summer school this year. Among students of regular D.C. public schools, 21 percent (9,429 of 45,000 students) are enrolling this summer.

The gap is worse when you consider the way many charters use their summer sessions. Some of the most successful charters in the District require all students to attend summer school. It is not just a device to remediate slow kids or enrich fast ones: It is part of the learning plan for the entire year. Nationally, charter-school students on average do no better than regular-school students, but in the District they show more progress, despite being as disadvantaged as the regular-school kids. Charters can raise extra money for such programs, but so can regular schools.

Ron Fairchild and Jeff Smink of the Baltimore-based National Summer Learning Association extolled making summer school part of the school year in a commentary in Education Week. That approach, they said, "challenges the value of a traditional, remedial model of summer school, and embraces instead a seamless blend of core academic learning and hands-on enrichment activities."

Washington area suburban schools also have summer learning opportunities. Loudoun County has a math instruction camp and a middle school technical camp. The Fairfax County elementary school offerings include Little Authors Workshop and We Do Robotics. Montgomery County has a four-week program for schools with many low-income students. Manassas City has an engineering camp. Falls Church has an array of drama and arts programs. Prince George's County is paying students at some elementary schools $5 for every book they read, up to $25.

But in most communities, these activities are just for a few. A new survey of 30,000 households by the Afterschool Alliance reveals that three out of four U.S. schoolchildren do not participate in summer learning programs, even though parents of 56 percent of those kids not participating would like them to.

It might be time to shed our discomfort with the notion of summer school for all, and see whether it helps our kids, particularly those in districts such as D.C. The people running the Brent Elementary forum Wednesday would like to do much more with the summer than they are able. Check out what they offer. Would it be so bad if every child had a chance to learn in that way, and get a head start on the new school year?

For more Jay, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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