Amoyiea and Alleeah Myers sat in the front row and beamed with confidence during one of countless arts, crafts and reading activities schedules in Schenectady County libraries this summer.
“What do you see going on in this picture?” Naomi Meyer asked the kids as she held up an artistic photograph of an American flag draped from a house.
Meyer and Skidmore College student Julia Adelman visited the Mont Pleasant Branch Library on Wednesday from the Tang Museum at Skidmore for a presentation and activity they will put on over 50 times this summer. Showing off pictures of different American flags, part of a display at the museum, they then let the students create their own flags out of felt.
They asked about a second photograph — this one of a wood pallet painted into an American flag. “What do you see in this one?”
“A small flag,” Alleeah said before anyone else could muster an answer.
“I see another American flag,” Amoyiea said, adding to the response of her younger sister. “And some grass and some trees.”
With summer just starting last week, Amoyiea and her younger siblings and parents were already making the library a regular stop.
“Every week we exchange our movies and this week we started getting books,” she said. Her most recent read was about a boy looking to tie his dog to a tree so it wouldn’t chase after bike riders. “The idea was to tie the dog to a rope and tie the rope to a tree, but the rope didn’t work.”
There were around 15 kids at the library on Wednesday. Some rode their bikes over or walked with siblings, while others came with parents. But they were all there because they were not somewhere else: at school.
After school lets out, kids and families look for programs and opportunities to keep busy during the hot months of the year. The library system does all it can to step in with a summer-long reading challenge and activities
“Once school gets out, we gear up,” said Serena Butch, Schenectady County Libraries assistant director and head of youth services.
But access to summer programs and opportunities more generally are not evenly distributed across area codes and families. And low-income students, like the vast majority of Schenectady students, suffer from more academic loss during the summer months — known as the “summer slide” — as a result.
Ample research shows that poorer students are more at risk of backsliding during the summer than their wealthier counterparts. Studies over the past 20 years or more have found that while middle-class students make reading gains during the summer, low-income students fall back during those same months — setting those poorer students as much as three months behind by the start of the next school year.
A 2007 study by a trio Johns Hopkins researchers, “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap,” went as far as arguing that “achievement gaps” based on family socioeconomic status “mainly trace to differential summer learning” and that those learning gaps “substantially account for” worse high school and college outcomes.
“Since it is low socioeconomic status youth specifically whose out-of-school learning lags behind, this summer shortfall relative to better-off children contributes to the perpetuations of family advantage and disadvantage across generations,” the Johns Hopkins researchers concluded.
Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said the district’s students are more acutely affected by the “summer slide” than districts with less poverty. During the school year, the district makes sure students’ nutrition, mental and physical needs are met, but for most students, that falls away during the summer.
“All of the supports that we put in place in school to ensure kids make progress during the school year, and all of those supports go away for the most part during the summer,” Spring said.
Over the summer, Schenectady schools offer a handful of activities that range from traditional summer school to school-specific programs at Lincoln and Hamilton elementary schools. Programs are also available for students with disabilities, English language learners and students in kindergarten and first grade. In total, the programs are able to reach well over 1,000 students.
But the district’s current summer programs are far from the comprehensive and seamless summer schooling Spring would like to see the district offer. He called the current offerings a “patchwork” of grant-funded programs that are not “well-coordinated,” because they are tailored to grant requirements. And many Schenectady students don’t have the extracurricular summer opportunities that students in wealthier districts may have.
“In some places we don’t talk about achievement gaps we talk about opportunity gaps,” Spring said.
If the district sees a similar boost in state funding next year as it did this year, Spring said, the district would focus on expanding its summer program as early as next year.
In the Mohonasen Central School District, and other districts in the area, summer is a chance to offer new angles into learning new things. The district offers a variety of tuition-based summer enrichment programs that run for a week at a time. Those programs include Play-Dough engineering for students entering first through third grades, yoga camp for elementary school students, comic camp for middle school students and more.
The district also assigns summer reading to students but gives students a selection to choose from and tailoring the assignment to give students a peek into the curriculum of the next grade, said Lisa Cutting, Mohonasen assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The most expensive programs top out at $70 for the week.
“One of the things that we have always tried to do is to promote that continued love of reading throughout the summer in order to prevent that [summer slide],” Cutting said. “We’ve tweaked it to encourage that love of reading by giving them choice.”
Niskayuna schools offer a similar menu of enrichment programs during the summer. The district offers eight weeklong courses, a weeklong Engineering Institute for Young Women with General Electric, a summer program for English language learners and extended school year opportunities for students with special education needs.
But Niskayuna Cosimo Tangorra Jr. doesn’t stress over the district’s students falling back during the summer.
“Summer slide is a challenge and is a greater challenge in some places than it has been in others,” Tangorra said. “And traditionally it hasn’t been a problem in Niskayuna.”
Serena Butch stood on the sidelines of Wednesday’s activity at the Mont Pleasant Branch library, pleased with the turnout. Plans for the summer activities have been in the works since February.
“I see a hub of neighborhood activity, I see adults and kids interacting, I see creativity and a lot of language,” Butch said. “I see the library being used in a wonderful way.”
The library activities center around providing students with experiences that will expose them to the arts and music and other things they may not otherwise see, as well as build interest in reading, attract them to a library and subtly build literacy skills.
But the summer reading challenge, which is self-directed, is explicitly aimed at putting books in kids’ hands. Kids, teens and adults are free to sign up for the challenge and pick up a Summer Reading Bingo Card. They can check off a space on the card by finishing reading tasks: read a magazine, read a book in a series, make a recipe from a cookbook, re-read a favorite and more. With each row, people earn prizes and tickets for a raffle of even better prizes at the end of the year.
Some of the kids at the library last week were already missing school.
“I’m sad because I like going to school, because I get to learn,” said 6-year-old Taijer Coleman said as he taped a race car onto his felt flag.
Others expressed the joy of summer with a lap around a shelf of books or an enthusiastic wave of their handcrafted flag.
“I’m gonna put it in my room,” Anysia Baker, 5, said as she waved her flag proudly. “And when I put it in my room I’m gonna claim my room to myself.”
Anysia’s mom, Maryna Baker, looked on with Anysia’s sister in mind.
“What about your sister?” she asled Anysia. “They do technically share a room.”