A weekend interview with ...
... Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University. Fairchild, a St. Petersburg native and Northeast High graduate, talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about the "summer slide" and what parents and kids can do about it as they enter the final days before school starts again.
JS: What is it about the summer time that tends to see children lose what they have learned?
RF: Well, I think everyone would expect athletes' or musicians' performance suffer if they didn't practice. The same is true for our nation's young people. And so, what research consistently shows us is that our young people are at risk of experiencing setbacks in their academic performance over the summer months if they don't practice those skills regularly.
JS: So let's say, we are going back to school in a couple of weeks and we've done nothing. What should we be doing now?
RF: Teachers typically have to spend four to six weeks in the fall reteaching subject matter that students have learned in the spring. So I think there are things that parents and young people can do in the few weeks that are remaining of summer to make sure that they go back to school ready to learn and succeed.
Some things are fairly practical. Try to get accustomed to the schedule that many of the kids will be faced with in the school year as compared to the summer. So try to get into a regular routine around bed time for younger kids, certainly. Make sure you can brush up on some basic computation skills and other things. Making sure that there's plenty of practice time for reading. ... An educational field trip or two in the last couple of weeks would probably help get kids excited and interested in learning.
JS: An educational field trip? What would constitute that?
RF: Well, I think a trip to a science center or a museum would be a wonderful opportunity to at least get kids reading and excited and interested in learning activities, and help build a bridge back to the school year. So certainly the Dali Museum or the (MOSI) or those types of activities where you get kids thinking and talking about works of art or other kinds of learning.
JS: What about something like reading Harry Potter?
RF: Sure. I think reading books and reading Harry Potter and discussing it with a friend or sibling would be great. Reading about current events, doing some writing either to a friend or relative. Those kinds of activities. Getting back into the practice of reading and writing and practicing math skills would certainly be a good thing for parents to do. Setting some limits on television and screen time in these last few weeks, making sure the kids have opportunities to read and practice academic skills would be a great thing.
JS: Are there things that parents should be doing beyond simply taking kids and providing opportunities?
RF: There certainly are online resources from the school districts that talk about what kids should know and be able to do at different grade levels. Parents should definitely familiarize themselves with what schools are going to be expecting of their kids. ... Also, many schools offer programs where the kids and parents have an opportunity to visit ahead of the first day of school and making sure you have all the supplies and materials that the kids need. ...
JS: So it's not too late for kids to salvage whatever learning?
RF: Ideally what is really necessary is for the kids to spend the summer engaged in creative exploration and enrichment and have a summer full with reading and writing and practicing academic skills. But it's better late than never. And the extent to which you can spend the last week or two before school starts helping get ready and prepared would be a wonderful thing.
JS: What if the kids just won't do it?
RF: I think one of the big tricks is how parents and summer program operators are creative in sometimes disguising what the learning objectives are around the activities. If we make it so much fun and enjoyable for kids, and we have an expectation that they'll enjoy it and like it, then many times they will. It's not about, sit down for 30 minutes and do this worksheet. It's reading and talking about things together. It's taking trips to the library together ...
JS: So going to the zoo, you don't say there's going to be a test on what the elephants do. But you can in the back of your mind have some of the science behind it?
RF: And you can connect that to a trip to the library to pick up books about that experience. Or you can have kids, if you've gone to the zoo, write about it, keep a journal. ...
JS: What about for people who have last minute vacations planned? I guess that would be a good opportunity as well.
RF: Absolutely. Taking books on vacation and reading, or working in the opportunity to visit some sort of historical site or something in conjunction with vacation would be a really good idea.
JS: Any other thoughts you could share?
RF: Most people have a really wonderful notion about what summer is all about for kids. Most people think it's this wonderful time for recreation and vacation and creative exploration and enrichment. What we know from the research is that the reality of summer is very different for many young people and their families.
It's really a time where people struggle to find safe opportunities for their kids, with adult supervision and healthy meals and the kind of educational opportunities that many people take for granted. What our organization is all about is making the promise of a high-quality enriching summer program a reality for more kids in this country. The extent to which all of us can work together to create those opportunities is something parents need to be aware of.
Without these kinds of experiences, it's one of the main reasons the achievement gap grows. Research shows that over half of the achievement gap in kids, in reading performance by the time they reach ninth grade, can be directly attributed to the kinds of opportunities they have during the summer. So parents and others should never take for granted that these types of opportunities for enrichment and creative exploration don't have lasting impacts or repercussions, because they do.