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N.H. Schools and Programs Combat "Summer Learning Loss"

Sam Evans-Brown

This week NHPR is taking a look at the impacts of summer learning loss: the things that students forget during summer vacation. Yesterday we heard about how this hits low-income students harder than others, and today we look at what schools and parents are doing to tackle learning loss.

“You’re going to summer school” is a phrase most kids don’t want to hear. Summer school has traditionally been for kids who failed a class and need to get back on track. But more than ever school districts are putting an emphasis getting kids who aren’t in academic trouble into summer programs that give them a leg up during the school year.

But what exactly gives that leg up? Especially since summer camp is supposed to be fun, at least if you ask Aden Sliker.

Sliker: Well coach Bopp is trying to teach us, and he’s actually a really good coach and I think everybody’s gonna like it. [seb: so is this your favorite week of the summer?] Yes! [Why’s that?] I like having fun!

This is Shooter’s Gold, a basketball camp run in seven spots in the state, including this one in Laconia. Coach Jesse Bopp says there are lots of reason why a basketball camp can help kids with school.

Bopp: Striving to do your best, personal accountability, enjoying the game, exercise, teamwork, those sorts of things, and hopefully that stuff translates into kids being into more of an academic rhythm and that sort of thing when school starts in September.

But can basketball really help with academics?

Harris Cooper – a researcher at Duke University who studies summer learning loss – says kids are learning machines, wired to be learning all the time. As he puts it, as long as you turn on the faucet, they’re getting something.

Cooper: during the school year, that faucet is on for all kids, during the summer the faucet is on certainly more strongly for kids in middle class homes than kids in disadvantaged homes.

So a basketball camp, where kids can chat with peers, the coach, and counselors, is better than sitting at home watching TV all day.

And it, and other summer camps may help schools close the achievement gap: that difference between the test scores of poor and middle class students. Some education advocates argue that dealing with summer learning-loss is the most obvious and cost effective way of doing that.

They want the faucet all the way open, all summer long.

This is CSI class: it’s one of the summer enrichment programs that Laconia offers through Project EXTRA. Kids here are dusting objects to check for fingerprints, later this week, they’ll learn about chromatography.

Lyons: I love science!

Nicole Lyons is one of the CSI teachers, and she says kids are actually more likely to get engaged by science during the summer.

Lyons: I dunno it’s… it’s just more comfortable. There’s no pressure for ‘am I going to get a good grade or not.’ It’s just ‘I’m just going to learn for the sake of learning.’

Laconia middle school students can sign up for rocket building, aquatic biology, theater, and any number of other enrichment programs. The idea is these camps can serve as a bridge between school years, and can do it in a way that is appealing to kids, instead of feeling like punishment.

The problem is these programs don’t reach everyone. The department of education doesn’t keep track of how many students are in summer programs, and every district is different, but here’s the snapshot of Laconia.

Laconia has just fewer than 1,400 students below 8th grade and between all of their programs – including special education and summer school – the Laconia district estimates they serve 400-500 of them. Another couple hundred attend camps with Parks and Rec, the boys and girls club, and the local daycare. So maybe somewhere around 50 percent of middle and elementary school students are up to something during the summer. That puts them ahead of the rest of the state, where according to a survey by the Wallace foundation, only 29 percent of parents say their kids are in a program.

But Education reformers say these numbers need to rise, especially for younger kids. They say if you don’t get to them early, kids start to fall so far behind that they can’t catch up, and get jaded.

Cardinal: I think the reason we do better is because we want to. We want to go on to the next grade.

That’s Gage Cardinal, a middle schooler who’s going to summer school to make up for a class he failed.

Compare him to Trenton Macdonald who, as a high schooler in the same situation, is less enthusiastic.

Evans-Brown: What would your ideal summer be if we gave it to you? Macdonald: Not having to go to any school… they should pay us to go to school.

Summer learning advocates say schools have to find a way to reach and engage students like Macdonald, and summer might just be the time to do it.

For NHPR News, I’m Sam Evans-Brown

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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