Summer learning opportunities key to closing achievement gap
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All across America this month, parents are signing their children up for summer camp and activities, positioning them for chances to further learn and grow when schools close for summer break. But for too many parents in the United States, this is simply not possible.

This includes countless parents in the country’s vast pockets of poor rural areas, where the learning opportunities run dry for kids in the summer. From the most poverty-stricken towns of Appalachia in the east, all the way to California’s distressed Central Valley and desert areas in the west, children are falling educationally behind their wealthier peers during the summer months. 

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Organizations like Save the Children and the National Summer Learning Association are working together to help close this achievement gap – one child at a time – but we need more help.

Many of our leaders in Washington, D.C. talk about investing in our children, but they’re not doing enough. According to the advocacy organization First Focus, the share of federal spending dedicated to children is less than 8 percent of the federal budget, despite the fact that children are nearly one-quarter of the population.

And unfortunately, the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposes to eliminate critical funding for summer learning, cutting the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program: the only federal funding stream dedicated to academic enrichment opportunities for children outside of the classroom, both in the summer and after school. If this program is not steadily funded, we are putting children and their futures at great risk – especially in poor rural communities.

This includes children like 11-year-old Annabelle, who lives in a remote town in California’s High Desert region – a town where approximately 80 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

Going into the summer last year, Annabelle was just finishing the fourth grade, but only reading at an early third grade level. And with nearly three months of summer break ahead of her, she was about to slip even further behind.

Through a social worker, Annabelle’s family enrolled her in SummerBoost Camp. Designed to help kids from low-income families stay on track in the summer, the Save the Children program combines learning and play, blending reading and math essentials with games and outdoor activities.

Challenged to read 12 books during the six-week camp, Annabelle instead read 23. She always had a book open, even during lunch and snack breaks. And when camp ended, her reading ability shot up two grades – to an early fifth grade level. The program also helped Annabelle sharpen her math skills and come out of her shell socially. 

Without structured learning opportunities over the summer, most low-income children like Annabelle lose an average of two to three months of reading skills over the summer. By fifth grade, this leaves them two-and-a-half to three years behind their wealthier peers. This summer learning loss makes up 66 percent of the achievement gap in reading between low- and high-income students by the time they start high school.

This is why we must urge Congress to protect the crucial 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which helps give children across America safe places to learn, grow and play during the summer. Otherwise, they may never catch up.

Matthew Boulay is the Founder and CEO of the National Summer Learning Association; Mark K. Shriver is Senior Vice President for U.S. Programs & Advocacy at Save the Children.