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A time for kids to fall behind

Students find it difficult to readjust to learning after a long summer break. Educators suggest exercises for the brain.

Published July 3, 2006

TAMPA — Children pay a price for lazy days of summer vacation.

Rich or poor, summer break costs students one month of learning on average. Children fall behind on skills in the extended time out of class, research shows.

“All kids are at risk,” said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “This is an issue for everyone. It’s not just an issue for kids living in disadvantaged communities.”

But poor students are especially hurt.

Over the summer, students of all backgrounds lose the equivalent of 2½ months in math skills, Fairchild said. Children from low-income families also fall behind in their reading, studies have found.

In the Tampa Bay area, the problem is demanding increased attention. Hillsborough’s schools provide a month of enrichment to students in high-poverty schools. Concerned over learning loss, Boyette Springs Elementary in

Riverview has operated for years with a modified calendar featuring a shorter summer break.

This year, a number of nonprofit agencies in Pinellas received training on ways to slip academic refreshers into summer programs. One camp offered through the city of Clearwater for middle school students uses artists to reinforce concepts in math and reading.

“I don’t believe that parents understand this,” said Robbin Redd, a training consultant with the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas. “If parents realize that this occurs over the summer for their children, then they would do what they could to prevent it.”

Each fall, educators face the consequences.

“Most teachers recognize that when kids come back to school they are going to spend a couple of weeks getting them back up to speed,” said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology at Duke University who has reviewed the research on summer loss.

Research suggests that middle class kids often have access to camps and enrichment opportunities, which allows them to return to the classroom with a leg up. Over time, this plays into the achievement gap that develops between middle class students and those from low-income families, often black or Hispanic.

“It contributes significantly to the growth in the achievement gap,” Fairchild said. He cited research showing that up to half of the performance divide that opens during elementary years stems from summer learning loss.

The skills most commonly lost are those that require regular practice, such as math and spelling.

Savvy parents can help children. They can tally the cost of groceries at the supermarket for a lesson in math’s applications to real life. Fun reading can build a love of language. Educators say the trick lies in hooking students on academics in an informal setting.

“Science is everything around us,” said Marilyn Blackmer, an elementary curriculum supervisor with Hillsborough schools. “You can spend a week just on the social studies and the science of a chocolate chip cookie.”

Or owl poop. At Witter Elementary in North Tampa, a lesson on the food web recently captivated a small classroom of fifth- and sixth-graders.

Using aqua-colored tweezers, the students picked apart dense owl pellets. They looked for fragments of bones still intact after the owl’s digestive process.

“I think I found another skull,” said 10-year-old Deron Peterson in a hushed whisper to classmates.

Deontray Cotman, 9, looked up. “I think I found teeth,” he said.

The fifth-graders carefully matched the fragments to a worksheet showing outlines of bone structures for rats, mice and other animals that owls eat.

If not in school this summer, Deontray thought he’d be playing football, or watching it on TV. Deron goes to day care and likes to watch movies at home.

They were among about 2,400 students at 22 high-poverty elementary schools participating in Hillsborough’s

“Summer Plus” program, which ran through June.

The program, now in its third year, emphasizes math and science. Educators at Witter say they’ve seen the difference that summer school makes.

“You get the children engaged and excited, and it gives you a springboard for the year,” said assistant principal Susan Persbacker.

She pointed out a first-grade student who made six months’ progress in reading in a month of summer school. “If that child had not had the extension into the summer, since he was struggling anyway, he would really be lost,” she said.

Summer school programs can be effective in combating academic decline during vacation months, research shows. Even remediation classes can help.

Advocates of year-round school point to summer losses as a reason to move away from a school calendar that’s rooted in the nation’s agricultural heritage.

Modifying the school year has been found to make a small, positive influence on academic achievement, according to Cooper, the Duke professor.

“Balancing the calendar to where no breaks are longer than six weeks is the ideal,” said Sam Pepper, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education. “That’s plenty of time for vacation.”

His organization has identified more than 3,000 schools nationally that follow modified calendars. In Riverview, Boyette Springs Elementary uses the only such calendar in Hillsborough.

Summer loss factored into its decision to substitute several shorter breaks for the long summer holiday. Students at Boyette Springs return to school on July 13 after about six weeks of summer vacation.

For the rest of Hillsborough’s students, the first day of school comes three weeks later on Aug. 3.

Boyette Springs has operated under a modified calendar for more than a decade. But now the school is trying to figure out how a new state law will affect the schedule, principal Nancy Dukes said.

This spring, the Legislature passed a law requiring schools statewide to start no earlier than 14 days before Labor Day beginning in the 2007-08 year.

Lawmakers said they received hundreds of letters from parents and businesses outraged that the first day of school has crept into early August in recent years.

While the law won’t change the length of the school year, the outcry underscores the popularity of a traditional summer vacation — however families chose to use it.

“Our kids need that time off,” said Sherry Sturner, the South Florida mother who founded Save our Summers Florida to lobby lawmakers to take action. “They need that time to just be kids.”

Letitia Stein can be reached at or (813) 226-3400.

Tips to help your child stay academically sharp:

Summer school: Math enrichment is especially important, since students tend not to practice outside school.
Academic activities: Check out programs at libraries, museums and the zoo. Businesses may offer educational tours.

Learn on trips: Have your child read a book about your vacation destination. Visit places that might be relevant to the curriculum for the upcoming year.

Talk to a teacher in your child’s next grade: Ask for a summer reading list. Find out what math lessons are planned and visit a teachers’ supply store for materials to prep your child.

Limit TV and video games: Students can enjoy a break from academics without spending entire day in front of the television.

[Last modified July 3, 2006, 23:17:11]

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