Make Summer School More Like Summer Camp

Jun 03, 2019

Each summer, students can lose up to three months of learning, according to research collected by the nonprofit think tank, RAND Corporation. And by ninth grade, much of the achievement gap in reading—meaning the difference between the most and least proficient readers—is attributable to the compounding impacts of summer learning loss. That means teachers can spend up to a month in the fall reviewing materials taught the previous school year.

This phenomenon, often known as “summer slide,” particularly impacts low-income students, who may not have access to the same enrichment opportunities and extracurriculars as wealthier peers.

One solution favored by school districts: summer programs that focus on academics, often geared toward underperforming students. Yet these programs draw little interest from parents and students, and therefore low enrollment and attendance, says a new report-slash-toolkit on summer literacy programs from EAB, an education research and consulting group.

For the report, researchers led by Maria Wahlstrom, an EAB consultant, conducted more than 200 interviews with districts and dug into what those with successful summer programs learned, and what they needed to change. “We found that the majority of districts do have summer programs, but only 10 percent of students in the district are actually participating in them,” she says. Among those who do participate, regular attendance hovers at around 75 percent, the report found.

Contributing to those low enrollment figures is the difficulty in drumming up enough interest from parents—and also from students. Wahlstrom suggests that is partly due to a branding problem. “People underestimate the stigma summer programs have,” she says.

Rebranding these programs, from summer school to summer camp, the report found, could help them attract more students. Some districts Wahlstrom spoke with saw boosts in engagement by adopting classic summer camp vibes, starting with the nomenclature. Thus, students became “campers,” lessons became “activities,” staff were “counselors” and classrooms morphed into “cabins.” A few went even further, redecorating classrooms and adding a faux campfire in the center of a classroom for read-alongs.

A district interviewed by Wahlstrom even partnered with a local YMCA to extend the half-day summer program into a full day with literacy lessons—make that literacy “activities”—in the mornings and games in the afternoon. That change, however, may have been more pragmatic than cosmetic, she says.

“Having a half-day summer program makes it difficult for a lot of parents to send their kids because they have to find child care afterward,” Wahlstrom notes. But at the same time, “Teachers don’t want to teach the whole day.”

Incentives can help too. The report found a number of successful programs that adopted the use of camp “bucks,” a kind of currency given to campers for attendance and participation. At the end of every other week, campers could exchange bucks for prizes in a special store—a staple of many day and sleepaway camps.

Outreach can be just as crucial. Instead of sending a memo home, the report suggests creating a promotional video, complete with parent and camper interviews, to build excitement for the following year’s summer programs. “Think about your competitors” and their PR efforts, Wahlstrom advises, referring to the nonacademic summer camps students might otherwise attend.

“The districts that did transform their summer programs into more fun-like summer camps actually saw a huge increase in the enrollment of kids, getting them super excited,” Wahlstrom says.

When it came to the actual literacy curriculum, the report makes few recommendations, except to say that schools should ensure instruction complements and aligns with what students learn during the school year. Wahlstrom plugs the benefit of techniques related to the science of reading and brain-based learning, which is the subject of a larger EAB research project on the third grade reading gap.

Finally, the report tackled some practical concerns to set programs up for success. Camps should be held for a minimum of 20 days. And outreach efforts should begin earlier, preferably in the fall, a lesson that less successful programs learned the hard way.

“Districts were starting to advertise their summer programs after the winter months and into the spring, and by that time, a lot of parents were already thinking about where they were going to send their kids to summer camp or planning their summer vacation,” Wahlstrom says.


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