Summer vacation is here. School is out. For kids, summer traditionally has meant freedom from the classroom and homework, enjoying the outdoors and escaping the oppressive gaze of grown-ups.
But summer break is a bad time for many schoolchildren. They experience what is known as "learning loss," the process of losing the formal information, knowledge and skills that were acquired during the school year.
Learning loss, also known as "summer slide" and "summer setback," does not affect all children the same. Major studies, dating back to 1906, indicate that the degree of learning loss depends primarily on the education and economic status of children's families.
In their report, "Stop Summer Academic Loss: An Education Policy Priority," researchers found that on average, while middle-income children showed small gains in reading over the summer, lower-income children, especially blacks, showed great loss in reading skills. When math and reading scores were combined, lower-income students had a loss of nearly three months of learning each year, compared to an average of one month for middle-income kids.
This is bad news for lower-income children. Summer setback is not a one-time occurrence. It is cumulative and the major cause of the widening achievement gap as students move through the higher grades.
"By the end of the fifth grade, low-income children fall more than two years behind their middle-class peers in reading and verbal achievement and one-and-half years behind in mathematics," according to the report.
Some of the reasons are obvious for the vast differences between upper-income, middle-income and lower-income children. The higher the income and education of families, for example, the more the children are intellectually engaged year-round. Higher-income children are more likely to be exposed to books, cultural events, stimulating conversation and travel.
In Pinellas County, there are many formal and informal programs dedicated to reducing summer setback. Some of the programs have ended, but many still are accepting students.
The Pinellas School District has more than a dozen programs, some targeted to students who need extra help. The district also has a list of approved websites that parents can access.
St. Petersburg public libraries have been combating learning loss for decades, said Beth Lindsay, the youth services coordinator.
"Since the school library is closed for the summer, access to books is critical to making reading available to children," she said. "To encourage children to come to the library and check out books, we provide summer incentive programs to children. The library's role is to make reading fun and accessible.
"Add a little incentive, like a free book to keep, or tickets to the Rays game and even the nonreaders start to perk up and show interest. Another incentive this year encourages kids to complete eight reading activities to win a free book of their own. All of our libraries have weekly interactive story programs for school-age children where the kids get a chance to help the librarians act out stories, or to see a story that has been turned into a puppet show. These activities are intended to stimulate the imagination and create the desire to find the magic in a book."
The role of parents in curbing summer slide is crucial. One local couple, Amanda Martinez and Parisrice Robinson, are committed to keeping their son, 10-year-old Adán, academically engaged even during the dog days of August.
"Reading is the most important activity for our son during the summer," Martinez wrote in an e-mail. "He reads a number of books and participates in several reading incentive programs. Thrift stores and libraries are a great source of inexpensive books. We don't spend much money on fad toys and video games, though Adán is typical in liking them. We fight the battle of limiting TV and video games. Without the commercial distraction, we discover other things."
For his part, Adán, an elementary school pupil, sees summer as a chance to focus on one thing at a time instead of constantly changing subjects. He likes to choose the books he reads. Two unexpected highlights so far have been the spelling bee at the James Weldon Johnson Library and the writing camp at the Poynter Institute.
"I didn't like practicing for the spelling bee, but I ended up feeling like I could win," he said. "It was fun. Once I knew the words, it made me feel that nothing could stop me. I'm enjoying writing camp. We're learning different ways to write. I really like to write my own original stories, but I'm learning how to write from observing things."
Adán said that he is accomplishing a lot this summer. And because of the support of his parents, he should not experience learning loss.