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A Smart Time to Plan for Next



Strange as it may seem, it is not too soon to start thinking about your school district’s summer learning program. If you already have initiated such a program, you may be asking yourself how to make it better. If you have not yet started one, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about.

It turns out summer breaks cause students to lose some of what they learned during the school year. Worse, for low-income students, the loss is greater and cumulative. From one year to the next, low-income students fall further behind over the summer, increasing the achievement gap between them and their more affluent peers.

Summer learning programs, if done right, can help students avoid learning loss and start the new school year on stronger footing. That’s why they are getting so much attention. But doing it right is hard work. How can your district attract students and recruit the best teachers to participate in the summer, deliver strong academics, and do all of this on a budget already stretched to its limits?

The good news is you don’t have to wing it. You can draw on emerging lessons from a national study of six districts — Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas, Duval County (Fla.), Pittsburgh and Rochester (N.Y.) — that offer full-day programs for five to six weeks free of charge to large numbers of struggling elementary students. A new report, “Getting to Work on Summer Learning,” is part of a five-year study, funded by The Wallace Foundation and conducted by the RAND Corp., that is examining what a successful program looks like and evaluating program effects on student learning.

Practical Tips
The current report is a how-to guide for districts committed to summer learning. (You’ll have to wait until next year to learn about the impact on student outcomes.) It covers everything from planning to hiring to choosing a curriculum.

Planning: The most emphatic advice is to start planning early, no later than January, and include both district and summer site leaders in the process. Many problems identified by the researchers — from weak teacher training to ineffective transportation — could be traced to a rushed planning process.

Attendance: Students need to attend to benefit from the program, but districts often struggle to maintain consistent participation. Setting clear attendance guidelines and an enrollment deadline are ways to boost attendance, in part because they clarify expectations for parents. (Having an enrollment deadline has an added benefit of ensuring transportation routes are worked out before the program starts.)

Site leaders provided small student incentives such as ice cream parties and tying field trip participation to daily attendance as motivators for students to attend the program. The report also notes that it is not necessary to “disguise” academics to attract students. One program with the strongest attendance rates was also the most academically focused.

Quality Instruction: Advice on providing quality instruction includes hiring teachers based on performance and grade-level experience; choosing a standardized, vetted curriculum for all sites; and training teachers in how to use the curriculum and tailor it for students of different aptitudes.

The other critical measure of the quality of an academic program is the amount of instructional time provided to an average student, or time on task. That measure varied widely across the six districts, from 37 hours to 121 hours, because it is determined by the length of the program, amount of time per day spent on academics, use of time in the classroom and average daily attendance. Clearly, the more school districts can do to raise that number, the better.

Enrichment: In addition to academics, the six summer learning programs in the study are full-day programs that offer enrichment opportunities, such as arts and sports, which are popular with students and parents and help maintain strong attendance. The most effective enrichment programs were led by instructors with experience managing the behavior of elementary students.

Costs: The report also breaks down program costs in helpful detail and offers advice on how to economize without reducing quality. Putting resources into tracking and boosting attendance is critical. Because all programs have relatively fixed expenses, the costs per student are much higher if attendance is low. Clustering more students per site and running longer programs are other ways to reduce costs per student. External enrichment providers also can leverage additional funds.

Best Guidance
Whether you are thinking about launching a summer learning program or have had years of experience with one, you will find a trove of useful information in the Wallace Foundation report. Based on evidence gathered from multiple surveys and hundreds of interviews and classroom observations, it provides the best guidance to date on how to start and sustain a strong summer learning program.

So even though school has just started in many districts, it’s not too early to think about next summer.

Laura Zakaras, co-author of the report, is senior communications analyst at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. E-mail: zakaras@rand.org

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