By Julie Samrick
As a kid I loved the thrill of returning to school after a 3-month summer break. Crisp, back to school clothes were worn with pride. Clean pencil boxes and stiff cartons of crayons were handled carefully those first few days back into the new routine.
And later, as a teacher, summer vacation was an essential recharge for the next school year. I felt the same joy every night before my first day of school then too, anxious to meet my new students, curious for the unique dynamics that would set the tone for the year to come.
To this day, I still think of the demarcation of time in terms of the traditional school year. And when I meet someone’s child I always think in terms of what grade he or she is in.
Yet it’s time we rethink the traditional school calendar that’s been in place for over a century in America and alter the much beloved summer vacation. That long break from school was originally planned for the majority, agrarian families who made up the population in the late 19th century, when as many bodies as possible were needed to harvest the crops during the long days of summer. It was more hard labor than a vacation, to be sure, but now 99% of us have other forms of livelihood; do we still need all that free time at once?
Many American school children are enriched during the summer. They may go to science camp, or more importantly they spend time with adults who offer sustained learning opportunities, sometimes simply just by being there and engaging them.
But there are plenty of American kids who are left to do, well, nothing. A friend of mine who works in the Oakland public school system says that many of her fourth grade students were sad to be out of school this year because they had nothing to do and nowhere to go this summer. For ten weeks, the television may be their only teacher and companion.
Studies show that all children lose skills gained during the previous school year, on average one month lost for every month of summer, but for kids who are not academically engaged during the summer months the loss is even more severe.
By the time students reach ninth grade, two-thirds of the academic achievement gap between peers can be attributed to the learning loss that occurs during the summer months of the elementary school years, which only compounds with each passing summer. This chasm deepens so much year after year that by high school it’s common for some kids to read at a college level while others are still reading at a second grade level.
When I taught high school English before having children of my own I was constantly reminded of the reading discrepancies among my 9-12 grade college prep students.
Principal Jim Shoemake oversees a public high school in Northern California. Though he fondly remembers the summers of his own childhood, he still thinks it’s time we change the traditional school year. For one thing, “Kids today can’t just hop on their bikes and safely ride to the neighborhood creek or ice cream store and stay out all day like generations past,” he said. “That’s a long summer to just be idle.” Criminologists agree, saying juvenile crimes peak during the summer months.
Even more importantly, the principal is all too aware of the learning lost during the summer months. “I see teachers spending the first quarter of the school year just making up what was lost since the end of the previous year,” he said. He believes a 8:2 ratio would be the perfect balance, a cycle of 8 weeks of school and then 2 weeks off. “Push kids hard for 8 weeks and then let them be kids for 2 weeks,” he said.
Even if some kids do get enrichment during the summer months, wouldn’t it be nice to have year-round school with more intermittent breaks so as not to worry about the learning loss that happens to all students at some level during the long summer break?
Until then, all parents can do simple things to help kids learn and stay sharp over the summer and anytime.
- Engage your child in “brain teaser” activities. Play a game of Hangman with a simple pen and paper to work on spelling and critical thinking- short words for younger kids and longer phrases for older kids; play cards and board games together.
- Go to free library events and pick up books your child is interested in while you are there.
- Take advantage of inexpensive summer programs. Many summer camps are pricey, but churches often offer very inexpensive enrichment camps. Don’t overdo it, but sign your child up for a session.
- Stay connected to your home school. Dedicated teachers are often there working in the school garden or sprucing up the computer lab over summer. Arrange for your child to go with other friends to help.
- Keep television and other technology to a minimum.