Fighting the 'Summer Slide'

For most students, summer is a welcome break from the demands of school. But it’s also a critical time for them to gain out-of-the-class experience that experts and educators say is key to helping close the achievement gap.

Which is where parents come in.

“Children spend only 20 percent of their waking time annually in formal classroom education,” explains M. Elena Lopez, Ph.D., associate director of the Harvard Family Research Project. “That leaves 80 percent of their time for exploring and enhancing their learning interests in non-school settings.”

Summer, she notes, is the time for parents to address educational gaps through family engagement focused on learning

It’s a point that Meghan Borin, who teaches third grade at Woodward Elementary in DeKalb County, Georgia is quick to drive home.

She says [that] during the school year, background knowledge that her pupils bring into the classroom can make a difference between a successful student and one who struggles. Unfortunately, much of the year she spends her time explaining basic concepts.

“For example, we read about a little girl who goes to the beach. Well, [my students] couldn’t connect because they had never been to the beach. I end up explaining a lot and using a lot of visuals to bridge the information gaps.”

Borin adds that many of the parents in her class, which is overwhelmingly Latino, haven’t had much formal education themselves and that they often struggle to connect with in-class materials. Poverty and safety concerns also play a factor in how much exposure her students get.

“A lot of the kids go home and stay home because their parents don’t think it’s safe,” says Borin. “They don’t get out that much.”

Investing Time in Your Kids

But Karl Alexander, professor of sociology and the department chair at Johns Hopkins University, argues family income and status are not the sole determinants to whether kids gain the kind of non-school experience they need.

Alexander and other researchers spent 25 years tracking 790 students and their families, examining the connection between family educational activities and children’s future attainment. The results form part of his most recent book, "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood."

While parent’s income and status had a great influence on children’s educational outcomes, Alexander’s work at Johns Hopkins found that they were not all-defining. At the core, the difference in a child’s future success often came down to whether parents were able to invest time in their lives, whether they were able to go the local museum and library or not.

The difference that kind of time investment can make over the summer can come to as much as 1,080 learning hours and 245 more field trip hours for some students.

Using the Summer to Excel

According to Ashley Washington, director of Academic Success at The Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, a “lack of mental stimulation during the summer can mean steep learning loss.” But, there’s a lot that parents can do to offset the summer brain drain, including reading with their children, taking educational field trips and seeking math-related activities.

Schools can also play a part, says Oscar Cruz, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based Families in Schools.

Cruz points out that the efforts parents make to help support student achievement can be enhanced by the efforts schools make to engage parents. His organization will be holding a free event in July aimed at informing parents about how to make best use of the summer for their kids.

“Research has shown that the more the school does to make parents feel at home, the more parents engage, the faster student achievement goes up,” he says. “When schools effectively engage parents, math improves ten times faster and reading improves four times faster.”

For Lopez of the Family Research Project, the point to remember is that summer abounds with learning opportunities.

“We know that children learn anywhere and anytime,” she says, “and that family engagement happens not only in schools but wherever students learn, like in afterschool programs, libraries, or museums.”

Summer Learning Resources

Parent involvement, especially in K-8th grade, and parent academic motivation throughout K-12th grade is associated with academic success. Here’s a list of ways to keep your child engaged during the summer in select cities:

New York City: Cool culture offers free passes to income-eligible pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students to countless museums and cultural venues.

Memphis: Explore Memphis Passport for kids 12 and under offers prizes that kids can earn and win by logging their reading and by checking into Memphis museums like the Brooks Museum of Art, which is free on Wednesdays, and the Art Museum at the University of Memphis, which is always free, throughout the summer.

Atlanta: Take part in the Boys and Girls Club of Children’s Museum of Atlanta, which is free the second Tuesday of every month.

New Orleans: Join the New Orleans Recreation Department’s low-cost summer camp for children ages 4-12. Visit local museums on their free days. And, join the No Kid Hungry program.

Miami: Join the Miami-Dade public library’s summer reading program. And, visit local museums on their free days.

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