No school for the summer can be a problem for many children

Published 8:50 am Monday, June 10, 2019

Summer is here, school is out, and kids are looking for something to do.

When summer vacation started, many students jumped for joy as they looked forward to the long-awaited days of sleeping in, chilling on the couch and seeing old friends.

The widespread cultural memory of summer as a carefree time with children playing outside, family vacations at the beach, and picnics in the park is not the reality for most American families today. Currently, in 46 percent of two-parent households, both parents work full time — a proportion that has risen significantly over the past few decades. This leaves a large number of our children caring for themselves, parked in front of TV screens or video games, and therefore vulnerable to boredom, summer learning loss, and high-risk behavior. A majority of our families are scrambling to care for their children over the summer.

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Our current summer education landscape has been in place since the 1930s. While many believe that summer vacation was important for rural families so that kids could help out on the farm, that is not historically accurate. During the early 1800s, school was primarily open during the winter and summer so that children could be available to help with spring planting and fall harvesting. In the late 1800s, as America became more industrialized, summer was designated as a time for family vacations and a break for students. Experts at the time worried about the stress and physical damage of too much mental exertion for children in school for long periods of time.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that public summer school evolved into the model of remediation and credit recovery for students struggling academically that we would recognize today. As the number of households without a parent at home to provide care increased, summer camps and other child-care options began to rise. Unfortunately, the summer learning programs have not grown at the same rate.

Many educators have termed summer vacation as the “summer slide” — the natural tendency for students to lose academic learning during long, warm weeks of summer vacation.

In math, most children lose two months of math skills during summer vacation, according to the National Summer Learning Association. For reading, the losses are even more pronounced for low-income students, who typically lose two to three months of reading skills. Their higher-income peers, by contrast, make slight reading gains, thus widening the achievement gap. These losses are cumulative and have a huge impact: By fifth grade, low-income children have been left 2-1/2 to three years academically behind their higher-income peers by summer learning loss. Not only do these losses hurt individual children, they also hold back entire classes. A majority of teachers are forced to spend at least a month reteaching material students forgot over the summer.

This is where parents have a role to play: Something as simple as frequent trips to a public library can keep kids reading during the summer, and libraries themselves increasingly are offering innovative programs intended to keep young brains buzzing in that stretch between the end of the last school year and the start of the next.

The Boys and Girls Club of Elizabethton offers a summer program for children, that includes meals. The program not only includes learning opportunities, but sports opportunities as well.

Summer is an especially challenging time for low-income families that receive food assistance. According to the Food Research and Action Center, more than 20 million children received free lunch through the National School Lunch Program every day during the school year. In the summer, it is much harder to serve kids who need food — in 2016, only one out of every seven kids served by the National School Lunch Program during the previous school year was reached by the Summer Nutrition Programs. And kids who aren’t eating properly have both physical and emotional-developmental issues that make it harder on them to learn when school is back in session.

Locally, we are blessed to have a summer feeding program for children provided by the TLC Women’s Center. This marks the 17th straight year that the TLC Community Center has stepped in to provide food for children when school cafeterias are not serving. The program will continue through August 2.

Also, meals are served daily at the Boys and Girls Club for children who attend the day programs there.

Our world has changed dramatically since the concept of summer vacation came into vogue. We need to ensure that our students have safe and enriching opportunities during the summer to make sure that they are learning and thriving.