National Summer Learning Association: Smarter Summers
While we tend of think back fondly on school summer vacation, the data on its impacts present a less than sunny picture.
Summers off are stratified by income level. Most summer camps charge hefty fees, making them inaccessible to the vast majority of low-income kids. In many economically disadvantaged communities, children are locked out of organized recreational or educational opportunities once school doors shut in June. They also lose access to basic supports such as reliably nutritious food and adult supervision.
Almost all students are impacted by the “summer slide,” in which they lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math skills over the summer months; low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement. In addition, more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities; as a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.
Watch this video to learn more about summer slide and its impact on learning gaps:
A less obvious, but equally insidious outcome of summer slide is that children—particularly those at high risk of obesity—gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school for summer break.
The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) is the national leader in the field of summer learning, with a network of 12,000 individuals and organizations. NSLA works tirelessly to increase the number of high-quality summer programs for young people living in poverty, to influence policymakers, and to coordinate with organizations that identify summer learning as a priority. Today, budget restraints across the nation have severely impacted summer education, making NSLA’s advocacy work even more imperative. The Walmart Foundation, a strong proponent for keeping kids academically, emotionally, and physically on track, recognized that learning time needs to be extended through the summer months and not end with the final dismissal bell in June. NSLA had the nationwide relationships and the know-how to make a lasting impact on adolescent literacy by expanding the school year beyond nine months, making it a perfect match for Walmart Foundation support.
NSLA chose the four Smarter Summers programs based on the following criteria:
track record implementing high-quality summer programs;
experience developing healthy partnerships with districts;
ability to implement a sustainable financial model while accessing entitlement funds;
ability to scale;
ability to deliver academic and social/emotional support, free meals, and physical activities.
NSLA functioned as an intermediary for the Walmart Foundation, administering funds, ensuring that grant conditions were achieved, and creating appropriate conditions for sustainability. NSLA’s wealth of experience and wide-ranging membership made it possible to disseminate best practices gleaned from Smarter Summers, ranging from establishing successful district partnerships, to data collection, to designing a sustainable financial model.
Significant gains were recorded in all the programs. As of 2012:
Smarter Summers also focused on the critical goal of providing physically healthy summers for at-risk children. When children are undernourished, they experience more health problems, and all aspects of their lives suffer. During the Smarter Summers programs, every participant—every day—was provided with healthy meals, participated in physical activity, and received information on healthy living. At some sites, health education was woven into the curriculum.
Smarter Summers achieved its goals so successfully that the Walmart Foundation awarded NSLA a second, two-year, $4 million grant (2012–2014) to add five more cities, this time targeting school districts and nonprofit summer program providers. This Walmart District Learning Initiative (WDLI) enabled NSLA to evaluate the readiness of each city, determine a district’s ability to mobilize for summer learning, and verify how funds were leveraged. NSLA provided funding directly to districts, each of which chose nonprofit providers independently or used funds to expand and strengthen existing summer programs.
This unique approach proved effective. In Providence, the WDLI investment enabled the district to serve five times as many students as the previous summer in an expanded full-day model. Across the country, funds were used to narrow achievement gaps, provide science education, offer field trips, and expand STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) training for teachers. NSLA repeatedly demonstrated that through dedicated focus on essential summer programming, thousands of contacts in the field, and a strong policy arm, it could ramp up summer learning quickly and efficiently, and address the Walmart Foundation’s adolescent literacy goal head on.
NSLA’s nonprofit partners were also able to benefit from its federal policy initiatives, which are critical in a time of severe budget cuts. New Vision for Summer School (NVSS), a policy project of NSLA, seeks to “completely transform and reposition the role of summer school in education reform,” transcending the “remedial and punitive” stigma attached to summer school and embracing a new vision of summer for all children. In 2012, the Smarter Summers and DSLI grantees—along with representatives from 14 other districts—participated in an NVSS network meeting to share best practices, learn to advocate at a policy level, and discuss success and opportunities for growth.