Severna Park residents Jill Hagerott, 12, and her brother James, 15, have plenty of summer activities on their plates, including swimming, going to camp and the beach, traveling to North Dakota and helping out with chores at home. But there's another, more academic component to their summer vacations: a required reading assignment for school.
Jill, heading for seventh grade at Annapolis Area Christian School in September, must read one book from a school list and write a report. She chose "The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963," by Christopher Paul Curtis. James, who is entering ninth grade at the school, must read "A Separate Peace," by John Knowles, and write about the characters and plot.
The summer reading list can be a war zone for families, as parents and their children battle over completing the assignments, but the lists are more than busywork, education and reading specialists say. The reading is essential to retaining verbal skills gained during the school year, they say.
"The pattern of summer learning loss is well established back to 1906," says Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University. Though studies have documented that low-income children are most vulnerable, Fairchild says, "all youths are at risk for experiencing a setback of their reading skills over the summer."
The magnitude of such loss increases as children reach higher grade levels, says Jimmy Kim, assistant professor of education at the University of California at Irvine and author of a 2004 report called "Summer Reading and the Ethnic Achievement Gap."
"Most summer-learning-loss studies have focused on elementary-age studies," says Kim. But middle and high schoolers are also vulnerable, and the phenomenon applies even to advanced readers.
"Just because kids can read words and are pretty good at comprehension, if they don't exercise that gray matter, then they too will lose some skill level," says Carol Rasco, president of the District-based nonprofit Reading Is Fundamental, a group that promotes reading among children. "How many people say you can drop all exercise in the summer and still stay in good shape?"
Some kids -- and parents -- appreciate the assignments, which vary throughout Washington area school districts. "I think they're great," says Ann Hagerott, Jill and James's mother. "If the kids don't have something to do that's structured, they drive me insane and themselves insane. When they have a little work to do over the summer instead of a huge expanse of free time, they appreciate the free time more."
University Park resident Kady Ashcraft, 14, who has to read one book from a school list before beginning ninth grade at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, says the assignment "gives me something to do so that I keep my knowledge [from last school year] and don't forget."
Kady's mom, Georgia Deal, says she likes the assignment because it leads her daughter to read quality novels that she missed out on reading herself.
Other parents and teenagers could do without required reading. Barbara Selter, mother of 15-year-old Jessica, who attends Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, does not like that her daughter has to read, analyze and annotate three or four books.
"She's an avid reader but this assignment takes the joy out of reading for her," says Selter, a former young adult librarian in Philadelphia. Even though she and Jessica bought the books at the end of June, Jessica usually waits until just before school starts to read them.
"It becomes so oppressive," Selter says. "We have to nag her about it and it becomes a power struggle. It's unpleasant for her and for us."
Ann Douglas, author of "The Mother of All Parenting Books: The Ultimate Guide to Raising a Happy, Healthy Child From Preschool Through the Preteens," says: "In order to be successful during the school year, middle and high schoolers need downtime in the summer. Parents need downtime, too. They don't want to do a lot of nagging about summer reading."
Others like Rasco of RIF understand the potential frustrations, but believe summer reading is worth the battle.
"Children need to have their horizons broadened and parents need to support that because if they go on to college, even into a technical institute, they have to have learned to read different types of materials," she says.
Summer is an ideal time to read novels, says Kim, because the school year is increasingly devoted to preparing for and taking assessment tests. Besides, Kim notes, the 185-day school year in the United States is one of the shortest in the industrial world.
Some school officials say summer reading can serve as a starting point for learning new material in the chaotic first weeks of school, when kids and teachers are busy filling out forms and getting acquainted.
"At least if students have been reading the same books beforehand they have a common baseline to start from," says Bridget Warren, chief of public relations and programming for the Prince George's County Memorial Library System.
Teachers, administrators and librarians in the Washington area recognize that kids are more likely to read the books if the list is creatively presented and the books are readily available. In Anne Arundel County, for example, every high school student received a brightly colored bookmark at the end of the school year that contains a list of required and optional book titles, says Anelle R. Tumminello, coordinator of English for Anne Arundel Public Schools. The required writing assignment includes journal and exploratory writing. In Prince George's County, school and library officials collaborate to ensure ample supplies of books are on shelves at each library branch, says Warren.
In Fairfax County, school officials strive to choose books that are available in paperback so that families and libraries can afford them, says Pat Fege, language arts coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools. Some of the parent-teacher associations in Fairfax purchase books for students in need, she says. And many Washington area schools have partnered with local bookstores such as Barnes & Noble so summer reading books are in stock, on display tables and easy to find.
Elizabeth V. Primas, director of reading for D.C. Public Schools, says District schools provide a suggested reading list, and that some individual schools can require four to five novels.
Ultimately, though, the task of seeing that adolescents complete these assignments usually falls on parents.
Ann and Mark Hagerott sat down with their kids at the beginning of the summer to create a reading schedule. James has to read 10 pages a day of "A Separate Peace." Jill gets daily reminders and is expected to read each night.
"It's not that hard, but it's kind of annoying to have to do work in the summer," James says.
His sister also admits she'd rather spend her time doing other things in the summer, but adds, "It's pretty important because if I don't have to do work during the summer, I will forget."