Editorial: School pilot helps close learning gap

Learning combined with fun helps kids avoid backsliding during summer
Kids become secret agents — holding hands and crawling under lasers — at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.
Kids become secret agents — holding hands and crawling under lasers — at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

A bunch of kids watching movies, playing spy games, dancing, swimming and drawing might not, on the surface, seem like a significant summer learning experience.

But for school districts like Schenectady — anxious to close the learning gap that deprives low-income students of years of education, puts them behind their higher-income peers, and ultimately contributes to more high school dropouts and difficulties finding careers as adults — this might just be the best investment a school district makes.

The Schenectady school district just completed a unique, four-week summer enrichment pilot program that combined lessons in math, English and computer with art, problem-solving and physical activity.

In addition, participants received three meals a day, something that low-income children tend to lose out on during the summer when they’re not receiving regular meals as they do during the school year.

The idea behind summer school programs like this is to limit the learning drop-off that happens during the 10 weeks between the end of one school year and the start of the next.

According to the national nonprofit National Summer Learning Association, summer vacation is particularly harmful to low-income students, who tend to lose two to three months of reading skills and two months of math skills during the summer compared to the slight gains of their more well-off peers.

Over time, these kids slide further behind, leaving low-income students 2-1/2 to three years behind their peers by the time they get to fifth grade. The opportunity gap ultimately leads to more dropouts, greater gaps in employment and less success in college and careers, according to the association.

But sticking kids in a traditional classroom setting during the dog days of summer might seem to students more like a prison sentence than an opportunity to maintain educational momentum.

So Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring, school officials and program organizers and participants should be commended for thinking outside the box with their innovative summer enrichment program, which combined creative learning and fun to reach about 650 elementary school students this summer.

Rather than sitting around doing nothing or getting into trouble, these kids got to have fun, read and interact positively with other kids — helping not only bridge that education gap but also instilling a positive attitude about school and learning in general.

District officials say they plan to track the students’ progress during the school year to see if the program had any impact on attendance and educational progress. If funding becomes available, the district hopes to expand the program to 3,000 students next year.

School children have enough obstacles to overcome these days. Summer vacation shouldn’t be one of them.

Schenectady school officials are working hard to ensure that it’s not.

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