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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

EMILY BECKWITH: Give me an H.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: H.

BECKWITH: Give me an O.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: O.

BECKWITH: Give me an R.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: R.

LYDEN: A classroom of eager 9- and 10-year-olds follow the chants of their teacher. They're spelling out the word horizons, the name of their six-week, free summer program for low-income families here in Washington.

BECKWITH: What's that spell?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Horizons.

LYDEN: Horizons looks like an ordinary summer getaway for kids. There's games, bonding time, lots of bagged snacks. But along with the songs, there are fractions to memorize, and along with the pool, online quizzes. Its purpose is simple: to make sure kids don't fall behind in school by the time September rolls around.

BECKWITH: Many kids that are home are actually losing months. They're not even staying where they are.

LYDEN: It's called the summer slide, and that's our cover story today: the long slide into inequality.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: The American school calendar is geared for long, summer days; an agrarian calendar that dates back to farm cycles and harvests. But in modern life, for city kids with working parents, it can mean a different kind of summer idle.

BECKWITH: Many of them might be home alone; definitely some TV-watching, definitely some computer games and maybe even just walking around, honestly, on the streets of their neighborhoods.

LYDEN: That's Emily Beckwith, who's been teaching third and fourth grade. When we visited, it was the last day of the summer program, and the kids were letting off a little steam.

CORNELIO LACAN: It's fun Friday because it's the last day of Horizons. We're having fun; like, we're enjoying our day.

LYDEN: Ten-year-old Cornelio Lacan is exactly the kind of kid the program identifies.

CORNELIO: My mom works at McDonald's. My dad is a worker - he's a constructor builder. He's a painter, too.

LYDEN: Horizons is a national program which identifies children like Cornelio who will benefit from summer schooling, and it brings them back every year. It runs from first grade to the ninth grade. Emily Beckwith says Cornelio was a struggling reader when he first arrived here three years ago.

BECKWITH: He knew some letter sounds, and he could sound out some words. But as far as functional reading, it was pretty basic.

CORNELIO: I'm getting good at reading, too - like, almost chapter books, but I read like, half chapter books and comics.

LYDEN: His teachers say that when he goes to fourth grade, his reading and math skills will be markedly improved from when he entered the program. For every Cornelio, though, there are many kids who aren't so lucky.

KARL ALEXANDER: Lower-income children, in our research, are basically treading water over the summer months.

LYDEN: Karl Alexander has been looking at the summer slide for decades. A researcher at Johns Hopkins University, he studies the setbacks for children without summer educational opportunities. For 24 years, Alexander followed a group of 800 students in Baltimore. He watched them from first grade on, tracking their personal and academic development. He says almost half of those from financially well-off households completed college and found work. But for the lower-income kids, Alexander noticed something different, and he wanted to know why. He suspected it had something to do with the time they were out of school.

ALEXANDER: And what we find is that these lower-income kids are pretty well keeping up, in terms of their test-score gains, during the school year. We're able to see this repeatedly over first grade, second grade, third grade and fourth grade - the entirety of the elementary school years. Where they're falling behind is during the summer months, and that's where summer slide comes into the picture. They might gain a point or two on the achievement tests that we work with, or they might lose a point or two. But they're not making progress.

LYDEN: And Karl Alexander noted it led to unequal outcomes later.

ALEXANDER: Only about 4 percent of the children from lower-income households - we call them the urban disadvantaged - only about 4 percent of those youngsters finished college, baccalaureate degree.

LYDEN: Alexander says that kids from better-off families don't lose so much learning over the summer.

ALEXANDER: Their experience is just altogether different in this respect from the poorer children. They continue to improve their skills over the summer months, and it shows up tangibly in their test scores at the beginning of the new school year.

LYDEN: You said that the lower-income children had gained maybe a point in achievement over the summer. What about higher-income kids? Were you able to measure that as well?

ALEXANDER: What we find is that the higher-income children, on average, improved their skills to the extent of 45 points cumulatively, over the elementary school summers. Lower-income children are basically flat, zero. And it turns out that that 45-point differential in reading comprehension captures almost the entirety of the increase in the achievement gap across social lines, from first grade through fifth grade. So lower-income children are falling behind; there's no question about that. But they're falling behind over the summer months.

LYDEN: In your study, you compared lower-income students who dropped out of high school, and middle-class students who continued into college. What did you find?

ALEXANDER: What we find is that the difference in their achievement scores as ninth-graders, in the first year of high school, it's a very large - it's about a five-grade differential. And two-thirds of that difference as ninth-graders traces back to their differences in summer learning patterns over the elementary school years. Two-thirds - that's really quite extraordinary.

LYDEN: Findings like these have propelled advocates to change the school calendar and improve summer opportunities for poor children. One of these advocates is Jennifer Davis, the co-founder of the National Center on Time and Learning.

JENNIFER DAVIS: We're recommending - and working with state leaders and the federal leaders around adding at least 300 additional hours to the standard school schedule of 186 and a half hour days.

LYDEN: That's almost three months of school.

DAVIS: Right. And you can look at a variety of ways to add that extra time. You can add it to the day, and some to the year. That combination really works well.

LYDEN: Can you give me an example, if that were to be the way thing are?

DAVIS: Sure. An eight-hour day and at least two extra weeks, three extra weeks in the summer. So you still are getting a summer vacation. That's one example of what a lot of the high-performing schools are doing. There are a lot of ways to add learning time. There isn't just one model that works.

LYDEN: Lots of schools are already adjusting the calendar. Earlier this summer, Iowa expanded learning time in three school districts. New York City announced a plan to increase the school day by two and a half hours in 20 schools. And Los Angeles is moving forward with a similar plan.

There are concerns by some that this will all lead to what's known as academic burnout, or what critics call drill and kill. Again, Jennifer Davis.

DAVIS: What we encourage, and the best schools do, is not only add extra core academic support time but much more enrichment opportunities for students. So students are getting more arts, more physical education, more hands-on learning opportunities - a whole array of music and diversity of programming that is really engaging them, building a love for learning. And that's what you need; you need the combination.

LYDEN: Because the fact is, children without resources are competing with those who have them. And Davis says the inequality gap is only getting wider.

DAVIS: Families with resources are investing more than ever in their children's educational opportunities. So they're in science camp or robotics after-school programs or violin lessons - whatever it takes. Parents are ensuring - if they have resources - they are in the best schools, and they have the best enrichment opportunities outside of schools.

LYDEN: Let's drop in on Masai Jenkins. He's 9.

MASAI JENKINS: A day in engineering camp. Well, first, we took a pretest; words like hydrogen, electrolysis, friction.

LYDEN: Engineering camp. On Masai's last day of camp, his team won the solar car competition.

MASAI: Oh, solar car competition - for the steel-can rover, we won first place six times.

LYDEN: When he comes home from camp at the end of the day, his mother, Wanda Jenkins, has a strict rule for him and his 6-year-old brother, Asante.

WANDA JENKINS: They have to read at least 20 minutes a day.

ASANTE JENKINS: (Reading) Look at those hands...

JENKINS: Mm-mm.

ASANTE: (Reading) Look at these hands, Grandpa...

LYDEN: From Percy Jackson's Greek mythology series, to a biography of Thurgood Marshall.

MASAI: Almost all of these boxes are filled with books.

JENKINS: There are books in here...

MASAI: And there.

JENKINS: There are books in here...

LYDEN: And Wanda Jenkins has the books to beat the summer slide.

JENKINS: I don't worry that much about summer slide because of the kind of camps that they're in. But also, we do additional things. He goes to a tutor, and he wanted to stop, you know, for the summer. Mom, I need a break. No, you don't. No, you don't. I'll tell you what. Instead of us going every Saturday, we will go every other Saturday.

LYDEN: And that's not all. Besides spending thousands of dollars on her boys for the summer, Jenkins just enrolled them in private school for September, which these days - as we know - costs nearly as much as college tuition. And speaking of which, Masai already knows where he's attending.

MASAI: I'm going to Morehouse and Harvard for college, so...

LYDEN: No doubt. But what about the low-income kids that Karl Alexander studied in his research, who had trouble graduating high school - much less college; do they ever catch up?

ALEXANDER: The summer slide phenomenon, it's not just a matter of well - you know - they're first-graders, second-graders, what difference does it make; along the way, it'll all average out. Well, it doesn't all average out.

LYDEN: When does it become critical? What's the threshold?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think it's - you'll have to forgive me, I think it's critical from day one. I mean, if I could write the script, I would invest in high-quality preschool education for disadvantaged children, especially. But I have to be careful. I don't want to overreach and say that any child is irredeemable after third grade or fifth grade or eighth grade. That's not the case. We don't give up on our children.

And certainly, there are exceptions to every rule. There are poor children who have very strong family environments, and who perform extraordinarily well in school. All that said, recovery gets harder and harder and harder, the farther along children are.

LYDEN: So just to end where we began, after 24 years, the dropout rate for the 800 participants that you studied, what was it?

ALEXANDER: Well, it's 40 percent overall, which is a shocking number, but not at all out of the realm for, you know, high-poverty school systems. Forty percent is the overall figure. Sixty percent of children that we classify as from low-income families, left school without degrees.

LYDEN: But that's not a reason to do nothing.

ALEXANDER: I think the key is to think creatively and ambitiously about ways to help them all along the way so that fewer of them will experience those regrets down the road.

LYDEN: That's Karl Alexander, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS CHATTING)

LYDEN: Back at Horizons, the goals are more immediate: have a successful year, complete high school. Cornelio's sister, Michelle Lacan, stands outside the program at day's end. She's a veteran here, attending every year between the first and ninth grades. So really, this is her very last day ever of the Horizons program, and she is thinking about her future.

MICHELLE LACAN: After high school, I will become a doctor. I will be the first one to go to college.

LYDEN: That's Michelle Lacan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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