If summer break leaves kids stouter, stupider … fight back
Your kid can hum the jingle of an ice cream truck in perfect pitch and lip-sync every word of the pop hit “Call Me Maybe.” But now that summer is ending, it’s time to examine the aftereffects: According to national experts, the average American child has grown over the past three months — and not in a good way.
What they mean, to put it bluntly, is stouter and stupider.
Call it the summer slump. This is not the carefree summer of freedom you might recall from your youth or a Mark Twain novel. That’s not reality for most kids. They’re just bored.
They haven’t been climbing trees. They’ve been shooting avatars on Xbox. They didn’t have a ritzy camp, or even a decent summer program to attend. So they packed on the pounds and forgot much of what they learned the year before.
It’s a national scourge. Studies show kids return to school at least one month behind where they were when the previous school year ended, on average. And they put on weight in the summer two to three times faster than during the school year.
Why fight to raise test scores, only to see them crash? Why remove high-calorie sodas from school vending machines if kids guzzle them for three months straight?
We’ve got to find ways to combat the brain drain and weight gain — as a top charter school in Newark already did.
By the end of summer, the average kid has forgotten roughly the equivalent of a third of a school year, research shows. That’s more than two months of math skills, gone. Think about it: How many parents want to spend their summer teaching long division?
Summer slump is worse in poor children. They also lose more than two months of reading skills, according to Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University. In better-off families, it’s more common to read and have books lying around.
The result is devastating. By the end of elementary school, poor kids have fallen nearly three grade levels behind, primarily because of summer slump, Johns Hopkins researchers found. By ninth grade, summer learning loss can be blamed for as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap between income groups. Poor kids, more prone to obesity, are also the most likely to put on weight during the summer, said Gary Huggins of the Summer Learning Association, a national group trying to reverse these trends. “It’s like pushing the rock uphill for 12 months,” he said, “and having it roll back on us for the last two.”
One third of American children are overweight. Yet schools may do a better job than parents at keeping them in shape: A recent study of 5 and 6 year-olds showed they gain up to three times more weight during summer break than the school year. That’s probably because they’re stuck indoors while their parents are at work, with too much junk food and TV and not enough exercise.
The best charters got ahead of the slump. Spark Academy, one of Newark’s highly successful TEAM Schools, recognized it years ago, when its first kindergartners made big strides that vanished by the fall. But there were outliers: nine kids out of 100 who actually grew over the summer. What could explain that?
Standout parents, it turns out. They read to their kids and kept them on a homework schedule. It inspired a whole new summer strategy.
The school asked those parents to coach the others. In addition to two weeks of summer classes, it added a summer-long homework regimen. Staffers checked in with families and helped them scrape together funding for camps. They gave kids age-appropriate books and a fall fiesta as incentive: “The Summer VIP Homework Rager.”
Across all grades and subjects, summer learning loss was reduced — sometimes dramatically. Between kindergarten and first grade, the summer slide in math was cut by half, and it was nearly eliminated in reading. By the start of second grade, the reading loss had turned into a gain.
The charter also got a head start on incoming kindergartners. Staffers visited parents in the spring to distribute cut-out flashcards. Weeks ago, dozens of kids started school, learning to walk in a neat line, hands at their sides, lips zipped, on their way to a healthy lunch.
STUCK IN THE SLUMP
Now consider the thousands of kids who didn’t make it into a top charter. The ones whose parents can’t afford summer camp or classes. They’re probably out of luck.
Parents juggling multiple jobs are often desperate to enroll their kids in a summer program. But there simply aren’t enough. Whether academic or recreational, most of the ones in Newark have long waiting lists.
They call this the “faucet theory”: Academic resources for the poor get turned off in the summer, while better-off parents compensate to some degree with travel or trips to museums.
Summer school is not always an option, either. Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson has improved the district’s free program, tailoring it to specific skills that students lack and testing to see if goals were met. But it doesn’t take every kid; it focuses on those most in need of improvement.
And that’s saying a lot. By third grade, only about 35 percent of Newark students are on track in reading. Only about 40 percent of eighth graders can read well enough to enter high school.
Even for kids who most need summer school, there’s a big deterrent: air conditioning. Unlike Spark Academy, the district doesn’t always have it. “That was one of the biggest disincentives for students,” said Justin Davis, a Spark teacher who previously taught the district’s summer school. “Who wants to sit in a classroom that’s 90-plus degrees?”
NOT JUST FUN
Anderson is doing her best to fix the school year for Newark kids. But that alone won’t be enough, said Dale Anglin of the Victoria Foundation, which funds summer learning programs in the city.
“If we don’t address summer, she will not get to where she needs to be with those kids,” Anglin said. “They continue to slide in the summer no matter what she does.” So summer’s when everyone needs to chip in — and not just in struggling districts. Extending the school year isn’t an option for most public schools because of union contracts. But there are plenty of other ways to fight the slump. We need more good programs that combine academics with healthy food and sports. And parents who read with their kids. It all begins with the parents, as Spark Academy found. Many had never heard of summer slump, or simply viewed it as a deserved vacation. But there’s nothing rewarding about long, hot days spent on a city stoop or in front of a TV screen. “You know who figured this out?” Anglin said. “The charters. Those teachers tell their parents: ‘You get them into a summer program.’ We need everyone to be like that — and those of us who are older need to get rid of our notion that summer is just about fun.”