Research Links Summer Break, Achievement Gap

Research indicates that low-income school kids lose an average of two months of reading achievement over the summer. The achievement gap between whites and minority children is being attributed to this factor.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

This time of year kids are playing ball, they're jumping through sprinklers, they're riding their bikes, and they're forgetting much of what they learned in school last year. Research indicates low-income school kids lose an average of two months of reading achievement over the summer.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, that's a big reason for the achievement gap between whites and minority children.

LARRY ABRAMSON: If you think of summer as a time for exploration, a time to be a kid, it may be because your family had some resources.

Ron Fairchild of the Center for Summer Learning says poor kids begin to slide after school lets out.

Mr. RON FAIRCHILD (Center for Summer Learning): Low-income kids lose more than two months of reading performance each year of their elementary school years. And those losses accumulate.

ABRAMSON: During the school year, educators struggle to bridge the so-called achievement gap between white and minority kids. But Fairchild and other experts say parents can give their kids a leg-up by sending them to programs like SuperKids.

(Soundbite of children)

ABRAMSON: Tory, a rising second-grader, is attending the SuperKids program at the Midtown Academy in downtown Baltimore. It looks and feels like a day camp for second and third graders, but a lot of the fun is focused on reading and math.

(Soundbite of children)

ABRAMSON: SuperKids accept kids like Tory from any Baltimore school. They're only just learning to read, but are already in danger of falling behind as summer progresses. Fred Coleman(ph) teaches in the Baltimore city schools during the regular school year.

Mr. FRED COLEMAN (Teacher): My goal is to - when they get back to school, they haven't lost anything.

ABRAMSON: Do you see that in your regular teaching job, that when the kids come back in September, they're not where they were, they're not where you left them?

Mr. COLEMAN: Yes, just like you're starting all over again in terms of the curriculum and skill building.

ABRAMSON: Parks and People, a local non-profit, runs the camp. Executive director Jacqueline Carrera says the staff spends the first few days figuring out where kids need help, and most need quite a bit.

Ms. JACQUELINE CARRERA (Parks and People): The majority of the kids are at least one grade level or more behind by the time they come to us, which is saying something because they're only going into the second and third grade.

ABRAMSON: Parks and People is a recreation program at heart, so there are plenty of sports and outdoor games built into the day. In fact, the organization has to stitch together grants for sports, arts and academics in order to put this camp together.

Summer learning advocate say it's hard to find money that is dedicated to providing a full time enrichment program over the long summer break. They say most schools spend all the funding they have before the end of the year and only offer remedial summer school, which is seen as a punishment.

Summer learning studies say these programs work best when there's follow-up at home. That's what affluent kids are getting from enriched summer programs or from reading books with their parents. Amy Airs(ph), whose eight-year-old daughter is spending the summer at SuperKids, says she encourages reading all summer long.

Ms. AMY AIRS (Parent): Yes, we read, we often visit the library and she gets a new book. We try to keep her box of vocabulary words filled. And I'll give her a nickel for each correct word. And if she, you know, gets it right. And if she misses the word the next day, I'll take the nickel back, so she doesn't like giving me money back.

ABRAMSON: Airs works in Baltimore's Department of Juvenile Services. She knows what happens to kids who fall behind or to those for whom summer is a time to build a career in the drug trade. So supporters of these programs say don't shed any tears over the death of summer vacation. Lots of kids just use that time to get into trouble.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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