We figured it would be a breeze recruiting families for our summer program.
We hired creative, experienced, rock star teachers who wanted to reinvent summer learning with fun, hands-on projects. The camps would be small and collaborative. The kids would work with Legos and comics and mosaics.
Most importantly for low-income and working-class families, the school district was covering the tuition costs, and a scholarship fund was helping with wraparound care for working families.
Recruitment would be a piece of cake, right?
Not So Much
As a recent Wallace Foundation report points out, the stigma of “summer school” runs deep among students and parents—even if the benefits of regularly attending high-quality summer learning programs are high and kids gain an advantage in math and reading.
The report came from lessons from the National Summer Learning Project (NSLP), the largest study ever to look at whether and how large-scale, voluntary summer learning programs offered by public school districts can help improve educational outcomes for children. It found that:
Many public school districts are seeking to expand or launch voluntary summer learning programs, especially for children from low-income families. These children experience setbacks over the summer compared to their more affluent peers. Most studies have found that students from low-income families learn less during the summer than do students from higher-income families. Plus, if students do experience summer learning loss, those from low-income neighborhoods experience larger losses over the summer compared to students from wealthier neighborhoods.
Students from low-income communities also face an opportunity gap—they are less likely to have access to enriching, non-academic experiences than students from higher-income communities. Voluntary summer learning programs that offer a mix of academics and fun enrichment activities can help address these disparities, potentially helping students from low-income families achieve better academic and social-emotional outcomes.
The students who were invited to our program in a Chicago suburb had struggled academically (and behaviorally) during the school year and the hope was that a different model of learning—something fun in a classroom but more self-directed and less focused on benchmark tests—would help them re-imagine what school could be for them.
But it’s hard to reimagine a summer of fun when you land in the same school building you just left a few weeks earlier—and when you don’t feel you don’t have much of a choice in whether you go or not. Districts can call these programs “voluntary,” but the subtext is clear: If your kid is struggling academically, they are expected to attend.
We didn’t anticipate how much we needed to unpack the baggage of summer school and how hard it would be to do that in a school building with familiar teachers and classmates. We knew we were creating a warm, welcoming culture and helping students develop relationships with teachers, youth counselors and peers from neighboring schools. We also knew we couldn’t rebuild trust overnight—not in a week, or two weeks or even a month—especially among students who already didn’t feel great about school.
The Wallace report offered some other valuable advice to districts and programs trying to address summer learning loss:
- Parents are very protective of their children’s summers—they want their children to have fun during the summer and a break from what they perceive to be the hard work of the school year.
- Parents believe that summer learning loss is real but they don’t see the urgency of addressing it. Only when parents were told that their child may fall behind over time, did parents recognize the need to take action.
- Parents specifically mentioned these potential barriers to having their children take part: transportation, hours of operation, cost, location and proximity to home and the perceived safety of the site.
- For parents to sign up their children for the summer learning program, they need to be convinced that they will like it.
- Many of the parents don’t make summer plans until late in the school year.
We made some of those changes this summer. We doubled down on recruiting more scholarship families, and we got the information out to them early. We asked experienced summer camp families to act as “ambassadors” with their friends and neighbors, so those families can learn about the programs from moms they know and trust.
We’re going to make transportation easier to coordinate by connecting parents through carpool lists. And we’re going to make sure parents know our teachers and can communicate about their learning needs—something that doesn’t typically happen in a summer environment.
My experience taught us that kids can thrive and make remarkable learning gains when given the freedom to discover new skills in a safe, nurturing space. We also learned we need to spend a lot more time thinking about how we can get the kids who need us the most in the door, every day we can.