By Tatiana Poladko and Atnre Alleyne
There will be winners and losers this summer. And not just during the Olympic Games. As sure as ice cream trucks will bring joy to neighborhoods this summer, this seemingly-innocuous season brings learning loss and a wider academic gap for a certain set of students. Unbeknownst to many of them, these students – primarily lower-income and students of color – are outpaced and out-privileged during the summer. Like a marathoner seized by a cramp, the laissez-faire summer schedule hampers these students’ progress. The result: they regress relative to their privileged peers whose summer itineraries integrate vacation and academic exploration. But what if the school systems and supportive adults in these kids’ lives continued to carry the torch during the summer? What if the privileged weren’t the only ones perpetually positioned for the podium? What if we could help all kids #WinTheSummer?
It’s hard to acknowledge the realities of losing in a society that likes to give everyone a trophy. Yet, summer is a time when the well-connected occupy the winner’s circle as the less-privileged often spectate from the margins. As much as summer is a time of barbecuing, blockbusters, swimming, relaxation, and play, it is also a time of deep disparities, stress, and loss. Parents of the more than 25 million low-income students in America often struggle to find affordable summer enrichment activities. It comes as no surprise then that low-income students lose up to three months of learning, achievement gaps widen significantly, and many students lose access to healthy meals during the summer. These challenges are compounded when you factor in the cumulative effect of sliding relative to your more affluent peers each summer.
Summer is also a major hurdle on the path to college and career. Although lower-income students need summer jobs the most, they are much less likely to be employed during the summer than their wealthier peers. This means less opportunity to develop marketable skills and to save money for living expenses and college. Without access to great summer bridge programs for key transition years (middle to high school/high school to college), ninth grade students are more likely to fall off track to graduate and college freshmen are less positioned for college success. Researchers, Lindsay Page and Ben Castleman, have also found that summer is a time when many low-income students who intend to enroll in college slip through the cracks and never make it to campus. However, our education system (Pre-K through higher education institutions) and many well-intentioned adults working in this system often drop the baton during this crucial and challenging time for students.
But there are examples of schools, organizations, and initiatives that refuse to acquiesce to a 19th-century academic calendar at the expense of students. Many public charter schools have longer school years and some school districts are experimenting with extended academic schedules. A number of colleges like Williams College provide all-expenses paid fly-in programs or summer bridge programs on campus for underrepresented students. By providing access to school counselors during the summer, Fulton County Schools was able to increase college enrollment for low-income students in the district. In places like Delaware and Massachusetts, there’s even evidence that text messaging high school seniors during the summer can ensure they stay on track for college.
Outside of the school system, Delaware social impact organizations like TeenSHARP (an organization we co-founded) and the Summer Learning Collaborative provide a model for how to help low-income and minority students #WinTheSummer. The Summer Learning Collaborative dramatically improves the quality of summer programs available to low-income youth by supporting existing camps and community organizations with planning, staffing, training, curriculum development, data collection, and evaluation.
TeenSHARP prepares talented low-income and minority students for top colleges. Toward this end, the organization provides strategic advising and comprehensive support to ensure SHARPies are engaged in meaningful summer enrichment opportunities. This means students are provided with a breadth of summer opportunities that most would have never even been aware of.
One recent TeenSHARP graduate is about to leave for China on a scholarship to study for a year before starting college. A few students were selected for an all-expenses paid program at Carleton College in Minnesota this summer and some were selected for entrepreneurship, technology, and leadership programs at colleges like Drexel University and Morehouse. One rising high school sophomore is enrolled in a college course at Wilmington University (through the Early College Program) and another set of students received grants (through the Grip Tape Learning Challenge) to engage in self-directed learning journeys.
A group of TeenSHARP girls met Soledad O’Brien during her PowHerful Summit at Google in NYC; a group of rising seniors participated in a selective college fair at Princeton University; and another group has participated in SAT prep classes offered by TeenSHARP over 8 consecutive Saturdays at the University of Delaware. A set of TeenSHARP students and alums are working: on political campaigns, in Washington, D.C., at nonprofit organizations, and one alumnus is working as a Policy Fellow at the Rodel Foundation.
These students are winning the summer. But these type of trajectory-altering, disparity-defying wins do not occur by accident. And they surely do not occur if we design our education systems and schedules for adult convenience. These wins only come when adults and decision makers acknowledge the realities of summer learning and opportunity gaps; recognize the work of educators and education systems must persist into the summer; understand that rest and rigor must coexist for traditionally underserved students; and be intentional about increasing access to high-quality learning opportunities.
What’s encouraging is that we know we can help all students win and be on their mark for success during the next school year. We just need to make sure we stay on track to support them– all year round.
Tatiana Poladko is the co-founder and Executive Director of TeenSHARP
Atnre Alleyne is an Education Advocacy Fellow with 50CAN and co-founder of TeenSHARP