The annual summer learning deficit looms for low income students

Soft summer days will soon be upon us, schools will let out, and poor kids will be left to fall further behind academically.

In a recent summer, my own son was able to collect a number of free T-shirts when he attended consecutive weeks of science, computer and basketball camps. He was provided with a rich range of experiences, excursions and learning opportunities.

In contrast, this week, I put together a funding application for one of my agency’s summer camps. The budget broke down so that each child would allocated bus fare for one return trip/week with an additional $8 per child for admission or other costs, $5/day/child for food (because food security is a real issue), and $2/day/child for supplies for arts & crafts, games and recreation. We’re hoping to be given the $10,000 maximum grant. Otherwise these amounts will have to be cut.

However, these are differences of opportunity between poor kids and their more privileged counterparts that are apparent even in schools within the public education system.

The real inequity emerges from the learning shortfall or “summer slide” that occurs when school is out in July and August. The students from more privileged backgrounds continue to gain academic ground through the summer, boosting their verbal, organizational and other learning skills. At best, students from low income families tread water. More often they backslide.

Learning disparities accumulate each summer so that by high school, the summer learning gap strongly predicts whether a student will take an academic course load, finish high school or attend post-secondary education.

Perhaps most startlingly, the implications from the research are that if schools are able to help low-income students catch-up when they are in session, then supporting these learning opportunities through the summer break may be more important even than the early learning initiatives, which first gave kids their leg up, but which are not as long-lasting.

This issue of the summer achievement learning gap has some respectable backers:

In February, the Toronto District School Board received a staff report on year-round schooling. Unfortunately, the report was limited by an examination of whether the current 185 days of instruction should be spread throughout the calendar year, rather than looking at whether additional instructional days might have an impact.

While not making a formal recommendation, the door is still open. The Board report left the possibility of moving to a different calendar if a school community requested the scheduling change.

The summer learning gap is not an issue that can be easily addressed at the board-level. Funding and teaching contracts are provincial matters.

However, within Ontario,Toronto probably has the most compelling reason and capacity to act on the issue. The TDSB’s leadership on inner city and urban issues offers the opportunity for the board to lead on this issue, in the best interests of low income students.

June 6 update — Two quick updates:

  1. We got a response to our application for the summer camp. Times are tough. We will receive $4,000, but they did give us a hearty congratulations, as well.
  2. The TDSB’s Inner City Advisory Committee’s Model Inner City School Initiative has announced plans for summer school in its seven schools. Children from surrounding schools in the same cluster will also be given the chance to join in because transportation is being arranged for them. The program should run half days and has an emphasis on literacy, numeracy and equity. Afternoon programming, with more summer camp-like activities, will also be offered. Good news for these kids!


The Learning Season: The Untapped Power of Summer to Advance Student Achievement, Nellie Mae Foundation

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