By Riley Manning
For most students, returning to the daily routine of a new school is tough.
Lessons from the previous year – the date the Declaration of Independence was signed, the difference between a simile and a metaphor, the characteristics of a prime number – often fade during the summer months.
But what happens when students return far behind where they finished the previous year? This gap in learning, a rusting over of skills, is an obstacle teachers refer to as “summer loss.”
To middle- and upper-class students, recovering from summer loss is rarely more than a speed bump, but for kids in poverty, the three-month break in learning can be dangerous.
Tupelo Middle School Principal Kristy Luse has lent particular focus to the problem of summer loss, securing a 21st Century Grant to help fund summer enrichment programs for the past five years.
“It’s really a case of if you don’t use it, you lose it,” she said. “Especially fundamentals that lay the basis for literacy, vocabulary and comprehension.”
Because they build on themselves over the years, Luse said math and language subjects suffer the most from lack of use over the summer.
“The biggest step for kids would be to pick a book up over the summer and read it,” she said.
But those chances are much slimmer for a student in poverty, according to Ryan Curry, who teaches seventh and eighth grade art classes at Tupelo Middle School. Curry also works with children between the ages of 10 and 17 at Tupelo’s Juvenile Detention Center.
The summer of a middle-class child, he said, starkly contrasts that of a child in poverty. Though a middle-class child is outside of a classroom setting, he or she is more likely to attend some sort of educational summer program or camp through, for instance, a museum. Family vacations to places like the Grand Canyon or to national monuments and battlefields can be very enriching activities. Statistically, middle- to upper-class parents are more likely to encourage their kids to read over the summer.
“Largely, this is a discussion about family dynamics,” Curry said. “Many kids in poverty belong to single-parent households, or are swapped around between relatives. They miss out on the stability and opportunities of children who aren’t in poverty.”
Michael Russell, director of Tupelo’s Police Athletic League, agreed that ultimately a lack of structure is the most detrimental component of summer loss.
“We really put emphasis on manners that have kind of been lost in this generation. We teach them to shake hands and look people in the eye, that they must give respect to each other and the officers working with them,” Russell said. “The difference over just a week-long camp is night and day.”
Without structure or authority figures, students can be left to their own devices for the summer and occupy their time with friends who are in the same boat. A combination of boredom and lack of supervision, Curry said, may land them in trouble.
“Most of the time the kids say the reason they got into trouble is because of who they were hanging out with,” he said. “This underscores the importance of knowing our kids are positively enriched and involved in something over the summer.”
What is the answer?
The idea of a year-round school schedule gets kicked around quite a bit. Such a tactic would provide adult supervision and eliminate the break in learning.
“I’m not opposed to a year-long schedule,” Luse said. “It’s discouraging for the momentum built up over the year to get lost.”
But Luse and Curry admitted the ebb and flow of the school year is centered around standardized testing. The test, followed by the summer break, serves as a light at the end of the tunnel for students, as they face mounting pressure, rigor and fatigue after months of preparation.
“It’s a choice for every district to decide for themselves, but I think the release and relief that comes with summer break is important,” Curry said. “The teachers are burned out, the kids are burned out, and I just don’t see breaks during a year-long schedule being enough for either of them to recover.”
Instead, Luse and Curry said summer enrichment camps may be the key to keeping students’ brains active without the stresses of grade-based assessment. However, though Tupelo hosts plenty of summer enrichment opportunities, families in poverty often face barriers in accessing them.
“The organization putting on the program usually has to pay for facilities, workers, insurance and more,” Curry said. “On the rare occasion that a program is completely free, it rarely includes transportation to and from. A single mother working multiple jobs may not be able to arrange to have their child picked up and dropped off each day.”
This is where Luse’s 21st Century grant money comes in, providing camps in the fine arts areas through the school itself. Offering exposure to theater, dance and art, the camps are completely free and include transportation to and from the school.
Curry cited a multitude of benefits to the school programs. Students may test the waters in a field they have always wondered about, or spend more time honing a talent they already love. In the process, they gain exposure to other students and material they may have otherwise not encountered.
“What they really offer is experience without the anxiety of performance,” he said. “They aren’t being tested or graded, and during the summer, without that pressure, kids often push themselves even more.”
Luse said since the summer programs came into place, teachers have reported having to review less and less at the beginning of the school year. The only problem, she said, is making parents aware of the camps so they can take full advantage of them.
“Providing opportunities for them to get involved in fine arts is big,” she said. “For instance, we took them to see the Mary Poppins play in Memphis. Along with having fun, they also learned things like audience etiquette.”
Curry said he had no doubt kids learn during the summer, speaking of his experience with the Juvenile Detention Center. The question is what they are learning.
“I don’t see a lack of capability in kids in poverty. What I see is missed opportunities,” he said. “And there is no lack of opportunity. It’s just a matter of making kids and parents aware, and getting them to take advantage of those opportunities.”