It's Time for Schools to Rethink the Benefit of an Extended Summer Break

No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks. 

That old, familiar chant perfectly summed up my own feelings about the end of the school year when I was a child. I can clearly remember watching the minutes on the clock creep by on those last days of school, holding my breath until summer vacation finally started. Because my mother was at home, my siblings and I did nothing but play for those three glorious summer months. Sometimes we grew bored, but generally the time flew by. My family’s funds were limited, so we didn’t go to camp or sign up for activities beyond Little League for my brothers; as a result, I was always ready and eager to return to school by the time the fall rolled around once again.

Those were simpler times. Today, as an educator and a grandmother of eight, I have a strikingly different perspective on summer break, a time that can be challenging for parents and children alike. In well over half of all households with young school-age children, there is no longer a parent at home to dole out snacks and keep an eye on kids while school is out, and for the growing numbers of children with learning challenges, taking a two- to three-month break from school and its supportive structure can be a disaster. Many poor children miss out on the subsidized nutrition they need, and parents of all children now worry about “summer slide,” the loss of skills over the summer that forces the first couple of months of the next school year to be spent on review.

It seems to me that among the many things we need to address about education in America is just what summer vacation means for kids these days — particularly our most vulnerable kids. Here are three complications to summer break that I believe are worthy of our attention, and a few suggestions for how we might begin to address them.

1. Keeping Poor Children Safe and Healthy During the Summer Months

I have often wondered what family life would be like today if President Nixon had not vetoed the much needed universal childcare bill passed by Congress in 1972. Nixon thought the bill was communistic, and did not sign it because he feared it would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Perhaps Nixon and his progeny never had to worry about securing high-quality, affordable year-round childcare, but as a direct result of Nixon’s veto, thousands of Americans continue to struggle to piece together whatever patchwork of childcare they can throughout the so-called summer vacation.

For young school-age children whose families can’t afford expensive camps, the situation can be particularly dire. Without access to free public schools in the summer, many children continue to miss out on meals provided in school; despite serving more than 3 million children on an average day, federal Summer Nutrition Programs reach only about 15% of the population who qualify for free and reduced priced school lunch — meaning only 1 of 7 children who need food are getting it. Many of these same children are necessarily left unsupervised during the summer, well before they are ready for any such responsibility. How many parents aside from teachers can take off work during the summer months to be home with their 6 or 7 year olds? And where are these children supposed to go when money is tight? Those are questions we don’t spend enough time asking, probably because the answers scare us — as they rightly should.

In Chicago and many other urban areas, as the weather heats up, so does the violence. Should parents keep their children inside with no air conditioning and away from open windows on hot summer days to avoid having them hit by random gunfire? The National Summer Learning Institute confirms that children living in poverty often get less exercise, fewer nutritious meals and inadequate adult supervision without the safety net of school.

In short, summer break for kids in poverty — now a full 22 percent of all American children — is no vacation at all. It is a time of hunger, boredom, and often fear. When a quarter of our children are living in such circumstances, isn’t it time to reconsider our approach to scheduling the school year? Or committing ourselves as a nation to providing accessible, affordable childcare to fill the gaps when school’s not there? Or expanding funding for programs like SNP that do the same?

2. Supporting Children’s Special Needs

Like most families these days, parents who have kids with special needs have to work, so they struggle with how to fill the summer months with appropriate activities for their children. These parents often find summer to be an endurance contest that tests their patience and taxes their children’s ability to cope. Two to three months of unstructured summer vacation can be a disaster for children who thrive on consistency and need special educational support year-round.

Summer school may seem like an ideal solution, except that many children with special needs require consistency, and summer school is generally inconsistent in terms of both staffing and location. In my community’s public school system, children with the most significant special needs attend summer school for a grand total of 15 school days. The children may be assigned to teachers and aides who don’t know them, and by the time they adjust (if they do), summer school has ended. In the limited time they have, the summer school special education teachers and aides do their best to teach kids they hardly know; by the time they’ve figure out the learning styles and personalities of the children in their care, the program is over. And what is a parent to do with the many other unfilled days of summer vacation?

It’s no surprise that those families who can afford it turn to summer camp to provide the anchor their child needs, but here’s the rub: As kids get older, camp options are fewer. Their peers are by that point going to overnight camps or can be left on their own, so finding a day camp that is affordable, provides an aide and enough structure can be a real challenge. Typical campers tend to crave field trips to pools, beaches, zoos, roller rinks, museums, bowling alleys, etc. But for many children with special needs, this whirlwind of activity is confusing and unsettling. Even with an aide by their side, what is meant to be a fun summer can turn out to be torture for the child and the camp staff alike.

Unfortunately, the best solution to this problem is costly and obstacles to implementation abound. Children with special needs are clearly in need of some form of summer school programming that is comparable to the regular school schedule — yet our cash-strapped schools rarely have enough money to pay special education staff 12-month salaries and keep schools open through the summer. But children with complicated special needs lose an inordinate amount of progress as a result of inconsistent summer programming, and asking them to cope with the disruption of summer break ends up costing us more in the long run when you factor in the cost of the extra programming and staff necessary to make up for the summer regression. In this area, as with many of our current approaches to special education, our practices are badly in need of reform.

3. Putting a Stop to “Summer Slide”

There is a tension for many middle-class parents between making summer break a joyous and carefree time for their children and the fear of lost learning or “summer slide.” Will their kids pay a price come fall if they are allowed to have a summer that gives them the gift of time to smell the roses, play creatively, and even be a bit bored? Should children spend their time on the Slip & Slide, or should they be forced to maintain the skills they acquired during the school year? For children with book-filled homes and enriching camp experiences, I think some Slip & Slide time is highly desirable. But for many kids without those benefits, a book-free and totally unstructured summer is no help at all.

According to Reading is Fundamental (RIF), there is little doubt that children who take a summer break from reading will slide backwards. The National Summer Learning Association states, "A conservative estimate of lost instructional time is approximately two months or roughly 22 percent of the school year.... It's common for teachers to spend at least a month re-teaching material that students have forgotten over the summer. That month of re-teaching eliminates a month that could have been spent on teaching new information and skills."

Summer slide is particularly hard on children from low-income families and has the effect of widening the achievement gap. Reading programs offered by public libraries and bookmobiles can help if children can access them. According to RIF, “Many American children don’t have access to books, let alone shelves full of them. Two-thirds of the 16 million children living in poverty in this country don’t own any books, so when school lets out for the year, reading and learning does not just take a vacation, it deteriorates.” More than 80% of these children lose between one and three months of reading skills over the summer.

There are ways to ensure that children without the resources of home libraries, app-filled screens, and summer enrichment activities keep their minds open to learning over the summer. In my community, the public libraries offer summer reading games and the local YMCA sponsors a 6-week reading program for children below the 50th percentile in reading. These programs are free and easily accessible. Communities that do not have easy access to similar programs could consider keeping computer labs and libraries open and staffed in some public schools (which could be achieved with volunteers – retired teachers, college students, parents, etc.) for online learning through games, and continued reading opportunities during summer. Schools should make it a priority to send home a list of these free programs, as well as summer reading lists.

We’ve spent too many years leaning on the romantic notion of the lazy, hazy days of summer. The truth today is that school may be out, but for plenty of folks, there’s nothing to celebrate. The huge disparities created by our economic structure — the gap between children whose families can provide both enrichment opportunities and time for unstructured play and those who can provide neither — leaves far too many children unsafe and unstimulated during the summer months. It’s time to reexamine this antiquated tradition of an extended summer break.


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