The organizers of a statewide campaign to encourage school districts to offer quality summer enrichment programs have documented gains in learning and growth in social skills that they anticipated would benefit low-income, minority students in their programs.
Through its Summer Matters initiative in a dozen communities, the Partnership for Children and Youth has promoted full-day programs that are more like summer camp than traditional summer schools. Most of the programs are partnerships between city departments of recreation and school districts.
“Programs do not have to look like traditional summer school to get good results that are engaging and inspiring for students. There is not necessarily a better return on a boring program,” said Katie Brackenridge, senior director for Out of School Time Initiatives for the Partnership.
The evaluation of three summer programs – in Fresno, Los Angeles and Sacramento – found particular improvements in literacy skills, as measured by the San Diego Quick, a common vocabulary test. Participants ended the summer having raised their vocabulary one-third of an instructional grade level over a six-week period, with particular growth among those students most struggling with reading.
The results were surprising and exciting, Brackenridge said, because the literacy component wasn’t tied to a particular curriculum. In Fresno, there was a daily silent reading period, but in Sacramento and Los Angeles, reading and other academic content were blended with projects and other activities that engaged students, she said. The gain is significant in the context of summer loss – the backtracking of academic gains that low-income students, denied enriching summer activities, experience. Research has found that this opportunity gap contributes to the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged youths.
The programs emphasize developing soft skills – strengthening peer relationships and ties with adults and developing persistence – that shape students’ motivation and self-confidence. Summer Matters’ assumption, as the report states, is that “summer programs emphasizing both academic and social components lead to positive outcomes for students: higher school-year attendance and achievement, increased motivation to learn, increased feelings of belonging, and reduced participation in risky behavior. These positive outcomes are most likely to result when programs begin in the early grades, are offered over multiple summers, and focus on prevention and development rather than remediation.” The evaluation found that participants in the Fresno summer program were one-third less likely to be chronically absent than their peers in fall 2012, although the sample was very small, and found in only one of three programs.
Otherwise, surveys of parents and students produced positive results. More than two-thirds of parents reported their children’s attitude toward school and interest in reading improved as a result of the summer program and nearly two-thirds said reading skills had improved. Students in two of the programs reported small but significant increases in their perceptions of their own work habits and reading effectiveness. Nine out of 10 parents reported that the programs helped children make new friends and get along better with other children.
The programs in Sacramento and Fresno focused on smoothing the transition to middle school because that’s a critical time when, Brackenridge said, “kids make the decision on how they will be as students.” The Sacramento summer program was located at the middle school that students would attend with their potential classmates. The intent was to develop friendships and make students feel comfortable in their new school, giving them a leg up on what can be a difficult adjustment.
The three programs that were evaluated had different themes.
- In Fresno, serving 394 middle school youths (two-thirds low-income, 8 percent English learners), all of the students read the same book – “The Red Pyramid” last year – and organized sports, arts and crafts and theater projects around themes in the book.
- In Sacramento, serving 333 middle school youths (75 percent low-income, 25 percent English learners), the focus was creating projects that concentrated on healthy lifestyles and the environment. In surveys, parents reported children’s views of school and reading skills improved as a result of the summer programs.
- In Los Angeles, serving 1,380 elementary school students (90 percent low-income, a third English learners), there was a hands-on science and math component with a partnership with NASA.
This summer, the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose will become the 13th Summer Matters program. The Partnership for Children and Youth is hoping that more districts will adopt the summer model it is developing, once they begin to get more Proposition 98 money in coming years. Summer Matters is funded by the Bechtel and Packard foundations. The evaluation, by the organization Public Profit, was also funded by the Packard Foundation.