DALLAS, Texas — June, July and August are vacation months for most American schoolchildren. But education research shows some young students pay a high price for that long summer break in the academic year. They forget so much of what they learned that by the time they start the next grade, they’re way behind.
More than 400 students attend summer school Bushman Elementary in Dallas. Hundreds more are in other schools around the city, most are there to make up for poor grades during the regular school year.
There’s more going on in one third grade social studies class than students reading aloud about communities, which is today’s topic. The nine and 10 year olds here are also studying art.
Combining subjects, increasing learning
Visual Arts Instructor Ron Oliver works to combine the two subjects. "The kids that never get it - like the 30 percent that always struggle on testing - they thrive in this kind of atmosphere," he said. "Sometimes they just learn differently. Like I would. And, we give them a different twist on how to learn it."
So Oliver says in addition to reading about communities and markets, students draw community scenes. "And they love to be able to express themselves in picture form. I think that’s the important thing," he adds.
"When I was drawing, I was expressing my feelings, and showing what was happening," explains one student.
Using art to reinforce retention
Teacher Gloria Pegram, who has taught elementary school for 15 years, says art reinforces memory.
"When they’re able to draw and express themselves in a creative manner, with core topics like this - even with math, we try to be creative with it - it helps their retention," she says. "They remember. They say, 'Oh, yes, I remember this because..' and they’ll go into what we were doing, hands-on, whatever activity we were doing, to help them understand it better, and to retain it."
Pegram says students who don’t take part in summer enrichment classes often need to re-learn lessons when they return in the fall. That’s especially true of low-income students, who are less likely to vacation in interesting places, attend summer camps, or live near public libraries offering both books to read and special summer reading programs.
Learning loss, without such interventions
"And for poor kids, the loss can be as much as three months of school learning that just disappears over the course of the summer," says Ed Pauly, director of research and evaluation at the Wallace Foundation
The non-profit has invested $50 million to research summer programs that can prevent that learning loss.
"That’s a very significant part of the achievement gap that separates kids from low-income communities from kids from more affluent communities," Pauly says.
He says one promising approach has been to incorporate art, as they do at Bushman Elementary.
"We need kids to master reading and math. Arts gets them excited about being there every day. And the arts use reading and math. The arts are a great way to tie together learning experiences," he says.
That holds true, as well, during the regular school year. And that’s why Gloria Pegram says she’ll incorporate more creative elements into her elementary school classes this fall.
"They’re still developing and they need more physical movement and activity so they can learn and still have fun. I don’t think anything’s wrong with learning and having fun at the same time," she said. "That’s my philosophy."
While the Wallace Foundation studies what kind of programs work best, school systems across the United States are stepping up their summer offerings, not just to bridge the vacation gap but also to help struggling students make up for last year’s poor grades.
Nearly a third of New York state’s public school students are taking summer classes. In Chicago, almost half of the city’s schoolkids are enrolled - trading traditional playtime for a summer of continued learning.