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Summer learning loss: Why we must support students year-round

As an avid runner, rower, and soccer player currently recovering from my third knee surgery, I am keenly aware of the process of atrophy, and feel it happening more and more to my body with each passing day that I am unable to exercise as intensely as I would like. The body needs to be worked out regularly and often to maintain aerobic fitness, physical strength and maximum health. I know that my return to running in July following a more than 3 month layoff will be a painful reminder of what has been lost during that time.

The mind is no different than the body, and so it is that summer learning loss is an absolute reality in the cycle we have set up within our educational framework in this country. As sociologist Karl Alexander from Johns Hopkins University has shown so clearly in his data (p. 255-258 in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers), our calendar system based on the rhythms of the agricultural season no longer makes sense when trying to strive for strong educational outcomes for the wide range of students now in our public schools. While a few fortunate young people may have their minds challenged and nurtured all summer with family trips overseas (who wouldn’t want to see Versailles up close and personally after studying it in a World History class?) and other extended enrichment opportunities at home and abroad, for low income and other underserved students, the reality is that they return from school breaks and summer holidays with lower achievement scores than before (in one particular Hopkins study, while wealthier students make consistent 15 point gains in reading over the course of summer vacation, low income students drop by 4 points). Teachers thus begin a new year often scrambling to get students back up to the place where they left off before even considering the possibilities of advancement, and the only fault of the students was lacking the resources to keep the learning process going all summer long on one’s own. Access to resources is a very different issue than motivation to learn or inherent ability to achieve.

At Rainier Scholars, we are committed to using the summer months for intensive enrichment and cultivation of the mind for our low income students of color, setting a goal that scholars will emerge after two summer sessions in our academic program (plus an extra school year of twice weekly classes) working 1-2 grades above grade level, not having fallen behind their peers who are already in enrichment settings but actually having kept pace and in some cases accelerated right on by. We witness daily the profound impact of a regular diet of mental and intellectual challenge, and though the popular myth is that students only want the summer to “chill out and relax,” we see near-instant results in the self-esteem and confidence students take into their next educational setting.

Just as running, lifting weights and riding a bike keep one’s body sharp and ready for performance, so too does reading classic texts such as Romeo and Juliet and analyzing whether one should marry for love or money, solving equations and mastering Algebra, conducting DNA lab experiments and debating critical human rights issues around the globe keep one’s mind sharp and ready for excellence. Yes, our minds and bodies all need a day or two of rest every now and again to recharge and refresh, but we all know how much atrophy occurs after 3 months; why would the mind be any different?

Sarah Smith is Executive Director of Rainier Scholars and a member of the Our Schools Coalition.

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