It takes a community to stop the summer learning slide 

It takes a community to stop the summer learning slide 
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For many young people, summer is an exciting time, where they can participate in camps, classes and other activities that align with their interests and passions. 

For others, though, summer is a time of real opportunity, when learning grinds to a halt and the gains that they made during the school year fade.

For those young people, this disparity has real and long-lasting consequences. When they return to school in the fall, they often start at a disadvantage, falling behind their peers that could continue to explore, and build on, their academic pursuits without interruption. And in the longer-term, these gaps in learning fuel an achievement gap that only widens year after year.

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This aptly-named “summer learning slide” that many students experience has represented a perennial challenge to the education and youth development communities. Consider a recent Brookings Institute study, which cites that on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school year learning. Or an Oxford Learning statistic that highlights how, over the years, students who experience summer learning loss are two grade levels behind their peers.

 

Despite these alarming statistics, only about one-third of young people nationally are enrolled in a summer learning program, meaning over 49 million young people lack access to critical, high-quality learning opportunities. 

We know these opportunities have the power to reinforce and advance young people’s skills and knowledge; yet, if we cannot offer widespread access to them, educational inequity will only continue to expand.

Communities and their school districts are grappling with this gap right here in Arizona — and across the country. They are exploring ways to expand existing opportunities for young people who might otherwise spend the summer months without access to the experiences and programs that support continued learning. Many try to offer at least some low-cost or free learning and enrichment experiences, but too often, they are unable to reach, or have limited capacity to serve, those in their communities who would most benefit from these opportunities. 

To support this effort, we must look to our museums, libraries, science centers, and other learning-focused institutions, which can serve as vital resources for low-income students and families, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). A recent national study from the Institute of Learning Innovation stresses the important role these organizations can play in offering continual out-of-school experiences that help to create a sustained interest in, and engagement with, science. The findings here also extend beyond science and technology. These institutions can provide an array of free-choice, informal learning opportunities that enable students to build on the skills they have learned during the school year and further explore their passions.

At Arizona Science Center, for example, we offer a number of scholarships that enable students of all ages from low-income families to participate in our summer camps and programs. Scholarship recipients are able to participate in interactive STEM learning that will spark their interest in new and exciting ways. 

But we have an imperative to offer the same experience to many more youth who need this opportunity.

For community institutions like ours across the country, partnerships with businesses and philanthropic organizations are crucial to helping us provide more free or low-cost summer learning opportunities. These partnerships afford us resources to overcome financial and other constraints that would otherwise hinder our progress. In communities across the country, from our big cities to our rural areas, we are seeing the positive impact that such partnerships can have. 

In Boston, Citizen Schools has partnered with Biogen, a leading biotech firm to launch the Community Lab, which allows students from low-income communities across the city to conduct hands-on lab projects, and meet and interact with scientists and other biotech professionals. In Columbus, Ohio, St. Stephen’s Community House organizes summer STEM programming for its underserved community residents, partnering with businesses to offer engaging, enriching activities that highlight the intersection between science and food, music, forensics — and even sports.

This summer, we have an opportunity across the country to stop the slide — and work together to narrow the achievement gaps that separate young people from disparate backgrounds. And we must extend beyond proposed strategies that place the onus on districts and the state to do this hard work. 

To better serve all young people, in and out of school, and to give them an equitable chance to succeed, we need to elevate the distinct role our community organizations and institutions can offer — and expand their capacity to serve more students.

The struggle for educational equity, after all, cannot take a vacation.

Chevy Humphrey is The Hazel A. Hare president and CEO of the Arizona Science Center.