Rebranding summer school

No more summer of forgetting: To keep kids from losing what they've learned during the year, cities and school districts are rethinking summer school.

Baltimore city councilman Brandon Scott knocks on doors to recruit more children for the city's summer programs.

Kai Ryssdal: Today is the first day of summer. Which means it's also just about the time kids start forgetting most of what they learned in school this year. That's especially true for kids from low-income families, who generally aren't doing the summer camps and trips to museums that a lot of middle-class families enjoy. To fight what's called 'summer learning loss,' some cities are trying to market summer school a little bit better.

Step one? Not calling it summer school. From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: In a plaza in front of City Hall in downtown Baltimore, jugglers walk on stilts and volunteers grill burgers and hot dogs. There’s face painting, and a drum circle, and a dozen or so booths where kids can sign up for summer learning programs.

Belinda Able is here looking for something her seventh-grade twins can do over the break.

Belinda Able: You know, we have to work. There’s nothing for them to do if they don’t have these summer programs.

The cookout is part of a citywide marketing campaign. Announcements play on the radio. Volunteers knock on doors and call parents to get more children signed up -- not for summer “school,” but for “learning academies” or “camps.” There’s Spanish camp and robotics and arts programs, all serving free meals.

Crystal Ashe is coordinator of extended learning at Baltimore City Public Schools. She says summer school has an image problem.

Crystal Ashe: We want to take the punitive nature of summer school and that thought out of summer school and that it really is a place where kids can get the academics but also the enrichment, and that it’s important that our kids not lose during the summer.

Research shows that kids lose about two months’ worth of math skills over the summer. Kids from poor families also lose more than two months of reading skills. Gary Huggins is CEO of the National Summer Learning Association.

Gary Huggins: Those losses are cumulative and can be attributed to more than half of the ninth-grade learning achievement gap.

Huggins says middle class kids -- who travel, go to camp, have access to books -- typically become better readers during the summer.  

Huggins: We don’t always think about how important those experiences are for other kids who are not having those kinds of opportunities in the summer.

Several cities have revamped summer programs to create more of those opportunities, but budget cuts have forced many districts to cut or scale back summer school. Baltimore increased its funding this year and hopes to reach more kids by collaborating with local non-profits.

Now the job is to spread the word. On a recent Saturday morning, volunteers fanned out across the city.

Twenty-eight-year-old city councilman Brandon Scott knocks on doors in Parkside, a neighborhood of brick row houses in Northeast Baltimore. No one answers at this house, so he tucks a flyer into the door. He finds one mom sitting on her front stoop.

Brandon Scott: Ma’am, how you doing today?

She’ll only give her first name -- Chantaye. She studies the flyer and sees that the only program for kids her son’s age is for students who’ve been held back.

Chantaye: I would like enrichment for him, you know, but he’s not failing. He’s a really good student.

Scott refers her to a website with information about other programs. Most are free or cost as little as $60.

Scott: If you don’t have the knowledge that the program is in your neighborhood then you can’t sign up, so that’s why we’re out here today.

The message is getting through. The city says programs have filled up faster this year.

Back at the recruiting fair, Belinda Able -- the one with the twins -- says her son did one of the free programs last year. Students boned up on math and science by building soap box cars and racing handmade robots.

Able: He’s been an honor roll student this year. And I think that has a lot to do with him not stop learning during the year. He picked up a lot.

Another student, eighth-grader Brandon Whims, is headed to Spanish camp this year. He says he doesn’t mind spending some of his summer in school.

Brandon Whims: They’re always fun, and they give me things to do during the summer instead of like sit around and play video games, ‘cause eventually you will get tired of doing that.

And you heard that from a 13-year-old.

In Baltimore, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

Baltimore city councilman Brandon Scott knocks on doors to recruit more children for the city's summer programs.

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