This summer, my students and I learned that blue crabs are really feisty, but mosquitos are even feistier.
For two weeks in June, I chaperoned a student fellowship program called Earthwatch Ignite, which seeks to stimulate interest and passion for science and technology through fully-funded scientific research expeditions for Los Angeles-area students to various locations around the United States.
Under the guidance of ecologists and biologists from Sam Houston State University, a group of eight rising juniors and seniors and I studied the effects of different salinity levels on the metabolic rates of blue crabs at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas gulf coast. Although the humidity was high and the mosquitos fierce, we experienced the thrills of field research and learned a thing or two about the complex ecosystems in the Texas gulf region.
Although the students came from various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and represented public, charter, and private schools, there were a few unifying qualities I noticed: Every student was not only involved in their school and their communities through various volunteering experience, AP classes, and clubs, but they also had at least one prominent adult in their life who motivated them to pursue this fantastic opportunity with Earthwatch Ignite. Students mentioned an adult mentor, either in their school, family or community who motivated, encouraged and guided them to apply for the fellowship.
Summer Enrichment Access and Equity
I immediately thought about the Matthew Effect of accumulated advantage and its relation to access and equity within our most marginalized school communities. Simply put, the Matthew Effect states that the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer. In this case, these students already had a demonstrated track record of success and achievement by the time they applied to Earthwatch. They had the skills and confidence to pursue competitive extracurricular programs and scholarships and had a mentor who encouraged and guided them.
They were Coolidge Scholars, Rotary Student Program Alumni, and Questbridge Scholars, to name a few. Meanwhile, their peers, who lacked those proficiencies or mentoring relationships, were not participating in these opportunities for various reasons. Sadly, most students do not partake in enriching summer programs that will make them more competitive for college and career, in turn exacerbating the Matthew Effect of accumulated advantage.
Summer Learning Matters
While there is myriad research supporting the benefits of summer enrichment programs, local, state and federal governments do not provide commensurate funding to support these initiatives. In a recent study conducted by the nonprofit Summer Matters, students who attended summer enrichment programs increased their instructional grade level in math and reading by over one-third of a grade.
However, most funding and policy focuses on the 10-month period that school is in session—when those two months during the summer provide innumerable opportunities for enrichment. When conversations over school funding arise, we need to place emphasis on ensuring that accessible summer enrichment programs are proportionately funded as well.
Another way to ensure access and equity to enriching summer programs is to equip every secondary school with a college and career counselor. By doing so, students, faculty and staff will be updated and informed about various scholarship and enrichment opportunities. For example, the college and career counselor at my high school routinely sends out school-wide messages on upcoming opportunities, leads professional development for faculty and staff, and mentors students on strategies to pursue extracurricular activities like fellowships and scholarships. As a result, there are multiple adults on campus who have the resources to provide meaningful mentorship to our students as they look to pursue summer programs and scholarships. When conversations on staffing occur at the district and state level, it is imperative to stress the importance of college and career counselors at every secondary school.
As we prepare to go back to school, I’m thinking about opportunities missed. Some of our students will be coming back with enriching summer experiences, while others will not. While I was inspired by the determination, drive and accomplishments of the students in Earthwatch Ignite, I couldn’t help but ponder how we can increase access to these opportunities. For our most marginalized kids, summer is a critical opportunity for growth.