Summer Learning Programs Strengthen Kids and Communities

Categories: EMPOWERMENT AND SUCCESS: Literacy Support, Education, Empowerment and Success,

“Summer slide” may sound like a fun attraction at an amusement park, but it’s not. The “slide” refers to the months of learning loss experienced by many kids during the idle summer months, when their focus turns away from school.

The learning loss is a phenomenon that has been documented in research for more than 100 years, and its impact is widespread: not only do students perform more poorly on academic skills as the school year begins, they also are more susceptible to a decline in self-esteem and frustration with learning that can seriously limit their ability to learn in the future. Research indicates that by the time a typical child enters sixth grade, they’ve lost 18 months of learning in “summer slide” declines. These are losses that add up and are hard to overcome. What’s more, research has indicated that those living in poverty tend to experience higher levels of learning loss.

Research also points to a few approaches: first, that realistically, the only time the achievement gap can be addressed and mitigated is the summer; second, that the most sustainable way to help children succeed in school is to also address the needs of their families, or instituting a whole-family framework known as the 2Gen approach. Thus, inspired by the vision of passionate donors Joe and Mary Kay Henson and the execution of former Alta Vista Elementary principal Dr. Barbara Shirley, The Eagle Academy was piloted at Alta Vista in 2012. The program provided free comprehensive summer education to kindergarten thru third-grade students while simultaneously offering training programs for their parents or caregivers.

A Decade of Summer Learning Academies

Fast forward 10 years, and the program has grown exponentially. Expansion has been slow and steady, but educational programs are now offered at numerous sites--on school campuses and in child-service agencies. Driven by the compelling data of skills retention and learning growth for participants, the Sarasota County School district secured state funding for Summer Learning Experiences, which is now offered at all 10 Title I elementary schools in the district, building on the Hensons' vision to realize the potential in youth experiencing barriers to academic success.

Further, nonprofit organizations including the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota and Desoto Counties and Girls Inc. of Sarasota County offer robust learning programs for students at their sites during summer break. While both organizations have traditionally hosted summer camps with learning components, BGC and Girls Inc. both now infuse academics more strategically, hiring certified teachers as camp counselors and using best practices in education to ensure a more intentional academic thrust to summer programs.

Today, thousands of students and their families are served. This is made possible through collaboration: nonprofits (both those serving children specifically and others providing ancillary services, like All Faiths Food Bank), the school district, and foundations like the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and The Patterson Foundation have forged meaningful partnerships that help the most vulnerable in our community find a path to success. While the programs at these and other community sites may look different than they do at the schools, an important feature all these programs share is continuity of learning that helps students avoid losses over the summer.

Support for Parents and Caregivers

The programs do more than maintain yearlong learning. For parents of all students involved, the programs allow continuity of work throughout summer without disruption. The programs hold extended hours and offer coverage that allows for work schedules to remain intact. That their children are fed nutritious meals—breakfast, lunch, and a hearty afternoon snack—also provides relief to many parents.

Zachery Cox has two children attending the Summer Learning Academy at Alta Vista, incoming kindergartner Silas, and rising third grader Ruby. For Cox, “these camps have been a financial lifesaver.”

With summer camp tuitions at roughly $300 a week per child for limited hours, sending his children to camp would be nearly impossible for Cox. He said he is grateful for the ability to work without interruption and without camps digging a deep hole in his earnings.

The pandemic hit his family hard: he co-parents with their mom, who is an essential worker. When the kids were home full time at the onset of the pandemic, Cox had to take time off from his job. Eventually, he lost the job. Just now getting back on his feet, he works full time as director of maintenance for an assisted living facility. Having a safe place for his children to spend time in enriching activities has allowed his family to regain stability.

“Plus, they really love coming here. It’s school, but it doesn’t feel like school to them,” he said.

Further addressing food insecurity that many participating families face, most Summer Learning sites partner with local foodbanks to distribute food at the campus, providing a convenient and free option for at-home meal preparation.

At some sites, like Alta Vista Elementary, parents get another boon: learning opportunities that can strengthen their personal and economic wellbeing in various ways.

One such program is Alta Vista’s Parent University, weekly classes held in the evenings just for parents. This year, Alta Vista’s Parent U. offers classes in 13 different subjects, from practical subjects like cooking and finance, to enrichment, like art and nature.

Cox takes a class called “Our Back Yard,” which teaches adults about the flora and fauna of Florida. An avid hiker and camper, he finds the class enjoyable and enriching. Further, it connects him with other parents with the same interests, so he’s building his social capital as well.

In the Children’s Classrooms

Examining the Summer Learning Academies now, a decade after their inception, reveals a great deal of wraparound family support. Here’s a glimpse inside the programs:

The Boys & Girls Club, Lee Wetherington Branch

The Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota and Desoto Counties, throughout their several locations, enrolls some 600 children in summer learning programs. Along with other philanthropic foundations, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County supports their work, this year with $90,000 to create opportunities for youngsters to attend their camps. Students from six years old through high school participate in programs here, all engaging in activities that enrich them, support their academic strength, or build leadership skills.

At the Lee Wetherington Branch, one key to stimulating engagement is letting the students choose topics to explore. In one classroom this summer, kids busied themselves learning about dinosaurs, using sculpting clay, colored pencils and small plastic models. Teacher Jenna DiDomenico circulated around the room, encouraging her charge with comments and high-fives.

Other classrooms engaged students on different tasks, from a computer lab for reading development to a stem lab where kids worked together to make their own circuits.

During the pandemic, many students lost even more ground on learning gains, which provides more challenges to catching them up. But academics aren’t the only area of decline.

Roscelyn Guenter, Director of Program Services, explained that one major setback for children has been social skills. “They’ve missed out on a lot of social skills children learn in school settings, like sharing and collaborating with others,” she said, as she gestured towards teams fitting pieces into a SNAP Circuit board. “These,” she said, “are important life skills.”

Girls Inc., Sarasota Branch

Step into the lobby of Girls Inc. off Tuttle Avenue, and you’re likely to encounter the enticing aroma of home-cooking. On this recent visit, it was ziti with savory red sauce that wafted through the entry halls: a healthy lunch for the girls attending Girls Inc. camp brought to the group by the capable hands of Nancy Doogue.

The Community Foundation of Sarasota funds Girls Inc. by providing $30,000 in scholarships for girls to attend this summer program. Here, a strong focus on literacy manifests in each of the classrooms.

Jabari Williams, Director of Program Operations, said his team must be creative in coming up with ideas to lure the girls into reading. One tactic they take is having the older girls read books to younger ones. It gives them a sense of stewardship to read to their younger peers. They also read books that have been made into movies so there’s a rewarding movie day upon completion, popcorn and all.

While literacy is a big focus, the club exposes the girls to all sorts of skill building activities. In one room, the girls were employing coding knowhow to create short original animations. Out back, girls were tending to a garden, cultivating okra and peas in the summer heat.

Aside from shorter activities, the students collaborate with one another in longer-term projects called “market days.” The project allows them to plan and execute the “sale” of goods or services for their peers. The real-world activity stimulates the girls’ creativity, practicality, and leadership skills.

The Community Foundation also supports Girls Inc. parents through funding educational services for them. In the wake of the pandemic, one major area of need is emotional support—this is true for the girls and their caregivers. Girls Inc. provides that support through Counselor Chelsey classes, which children and their parents take together. The courses range from anger management to perseverance and help participants process conflict and trauma more effectively.

Girls Inc. of Sarasota County CEO Angie Stringer said that training in regulating behavior—for parents and children—is more necessary now than it has been.

“Since the girls have gone back to school after the shut-down, there’s been a significant spike in behavior issues,” she said. Addressing these challenges and giving parents the resources to manage their own and guide their children’s behaviors is a key component of providing meaningful support.

Alta Vista Elementary School

As the original site of Summer Learning Academies, Alta Vista Elementary has over the past decade refined its approach to summer learning and parent support services. On a recent rainy Thursday evening, parents filed into the cafeteria, where they checked in with parent coordinator Mary Tucker.

Their children were settling into dinner and a movie, giving parents like Zachery Cox some time to attend a Parent University class in a subject of their choosing. These Parent University classes are the culminating event of the Monday thru Thursday Learning Academy week. For parents, it’s not only the chance to learn a new skill or delve into areas of interest, but it also provides a meaningful opportunity to model lifelong learning, such an important message for their children. It doesn’t hurt that dinner is provided for parents at the end of the class.

Alta Vista Elementary has tremendous success despite its demographic data: it serves a population that is 84 percent economically disadvantaged and has 76 percent minority enrollment. Still, more than half of Alta Vista students in enrolled in third thru fifth grade are performing at or above grade level, an achievement that is bolstered through the Summer Learning Academies and parent wraparound services.

During the school year, parents have even more opportunities to participate in courses that can benefit them and their families. Alta Vista offers GED and ESOL courses, along with CNA courses, right on its campus. This allows parents to get on track for improved careers in a convenient location.

This site is one of the 10 Title I schools that the Sarasota School district now provides Summer Learning programs in, inspired by compelling data that all pointed to a single conclusion: summer learning programs support student learning, mitigate summer slide, and help set families up for success. It’s partnerships like this, with the Community Foundation and other funders providing vital funding support for parent enrichment and family services and the district now offering free educational programs for students in need, that drive impact in our community and create positive change for generations to come.