As students around the country begin returning to school this month, many from low-income families will be at a severe disadvantage because of how they spent their summer. For far too many children in the United States, there is such a significant academic regression during the summer months that studies have shown it is responsible for most of the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students.
In educational jargon, it is known as “summer learning loss” or “the summer slide.”
Researchers have found that students across the board lose about two months’ worth of math skills during the summer months. But in reading, middle-class students actually improve over the summer, while low-income students lose more than two months of achievement.
This means that if children are not intellectually stimulated during the summer, if they don’t read and engage in other activities to keep their brains firing at optimal levels, they will need weeks — if not months — to get back up to speed in the fall. Teachers will have to spend so much time reviewing material students were taught the prior school year that children who were already behind their wealthier peers will lag even further.
Material forgotten. Time lost. Money wasted.
An argument can be made that summer slide is the most severe under-addressed problem in the American education ecosystem. After all, fixing it would mean stomping on the American idyll of lazy sun-drenched days. Summers are the precious amber of so many childhoods. Year-round schools? That would be like desecrating apple pie.
“The issue is incredibly important and has a tremendous potential to change outcomes for kids in this country,” said Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the Baltimore-based National Summer Learning Association. “I think the reason we don’t see it talked about as much as you would expect is there are a lot of entrenched systems and infrastructure built around summer break. And there are also widely held beliefs that summer is a time off, summer is a time for rest and vacation and all of those things that comprise the idyllic summer. But that kind of summer does not exist for at least half of the children in this country who live in poverty.”
In Mississippi, the stakes are about to be heightened exponentially in the coming school year with the third-grade “literacy gates” testing in May; most third-graders must pass a reading proficiency test or be held back. Students who regress during the summer could find themselves sliding all the way back to another year in third grade.
Educators believe one of the best ways to keep students engaged during the summer months is in programs that mix fun with academic enrichment. Thousands of such programs across the country step into the breach to make a difference in the lives of young people, particularly in poor communities. If the nation is going to make a substantial dent in the summer slide, expanding and enlarging these programs would be a good place to start.
In Jackson, Operation Shoestring to the Rescue
While she’s never heard the term “summer slide,” 11-year-old Cayden Taylor is quite clear on what can happen to her and her classmates when they return to school after a lazy summer.
“When you go back, you forget everything,” she said.
But for this rising sixth-grader in the Jackson, Miss., public school system, this summer was different. This year, Cayden’s mom enrolled her in Operation Shoestring.
For more than 40 years, this nonprofit has fought gamely to provide academic enrichment, remediation and support to kids in Mississippi’s largest city. In addition to an after-school program, Shoestring offers a six-week summer program that provides both academic stimulation and activities. The program staff is proud of the progress they have been able to make with students during the summer months — progress frequently recognized by the surrounding schools, which often direct students to the program.
Operation Shoestring’s latest analysis shows that the students who attend its summer program do better on district tests than their peers who don’t: Specifically, while students in the district show a decrease in their average test scores from the spring term to the first term of the next school year, the students from Shoestring show a much smaller decrease.
But the program reaches just 250 students in grades 1 through 12. There are 30,000 in the Jackson public school system. Staff members say the phone is ringing constantly in the early spring as parents look to enroll their children; the slots fill up quickly.
“If we had more resources, we would expand the scope and depth of what we can offer,” executive director Robert Langford told AtlantaBlackStar. “While it seems like we served a lot of kids, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Operation Shoestring is one of thousands of programs across the country that serve as beacons in poor communities severely lacking in most everything a child needs. Chronically underfunded, they often must treat the summer as an exercise in triage, tackling as much of the academic stuff as they can while keeping the kids safe and fed. When Shoestring ended July 11, there was still another month before the start of school, meaning parents had to figure out something else, add another stitch to the complicated quilt of summer activities. Some of the older kids were just at home.
Langford said he would love to extend Shoestring for the whole summer, but he can’t afford it.
In a state where it sometimes feels like painful memories from the Civil Rights Movement lurk around every corner, Shoestring also has a legacy from that time. It was founded in 1968 by sympathetic whites who wanted to promote racial healing after James Meredith — the first African-American to integrate the University of Mississippi — was shot by a white man in 1966 during his March on Fear from Memphis to Jackson to encourage Blacks to register to vote.
Langford said Mississippians, so accustomed to making do with less, have to fight to make sure they don’t become too complacent and accepting of the culture of scarcity.
“Too often we tailor our expectations,” said Langford, 50, a white man whose own parents moved to Mississippi from Virginia during the summer Emmett Till was killed in 1955 and who raised him with a keen sense of social justice. “We’re poor, poorly educated, have a legacy of slavery, have institutionalized racism, have lots of injustices born of racism. We need to not carry that forward. We need to make sure we don’t limit our visioning and resourcefulness and actions because of the culture of scarcity.”
Mississippi’s Scarcity Disproportionately Felt by Blacks
In Mississippi, the state with the lowest per capita income in the U.S., where leaders have never funded the schools at adequate levels, the Black community bears the brunt of the miserly ways. Of Mississippi’s population of 3 million, 37 percent are Black — and nearly half (44 percent) of those Black people live in poverty. Arkansas is the only state with a higher percentage of African-Americans in poverty, at 48 percent.
Cognizant of costs, Operation Shoestring offers six weeks of programming, Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., for a total charge to parents of $50. Yes, $50 for the full program. (The program is funded primarily through foundation grants and private donors.) While the mornings are filled mostly with reading and math, afternoons are a dizzying mix of activities like sports, cooking, swimming and games.
“We always have a waiting list,” said Amber May, a former teacher who serves as Shoestring’s program manager. “The parents start calling in January asking if we started accepting kids yet. They want somewhere for them to be. They don’t want their kids to just be at home by themselves. In some cases that’s what ends up happening because they may not find a summer provider that has hours compatible to their work schedule or that they can afford. Some summer programs charge like $150 a week. Our $50 is just the activity fee for the field trips. Parents want to make sure they’re in a safe place, and that they’re going to learn a little bit as well. But we need more summer providers in this community so we don’t have kids just walking up and down the street. And we can only do six weeks. Toward the end we have parents asking us, ‘What am I going to do now? I’ll pay you another fee.’”
After the summer program ended, May said, she could look out her window and see some of their students aimlessly walking up and down the street.
May is worried about what will happen to the little ones who are facing the literacy gates test in third grade. Just slightly more than half of third-graders in the state tested at or above grade level in reading in 2011. Many educators are particularly afraid of what this new initiative will mean for poor and Black children. The brunt of the policy will fall on them, and they will surely be blamed for their failures, as will their traditionally underfunded schools.
Mississippi joins more than a dozen other states, including Tennessee, California, Florida, Georgia, and Maryland, as well as Washington, D.C., that have imposed this barrier to promotion in third grade with the hope that it will prod the schools and communities to do a better job of teaching more young ones to read.
In the age of high-stakes testing, it has become a familiar American story: Starve poor kids of resources, then blame them when their results lag behind wealthier kids in financially flush school districts.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nick Chiles produced this story in conjunction with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. Read Nick’s brilliant piece in its entirety HERE.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.