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Not vacation: Summer learning programs crucial

Monday - 8/12/2013, 10:24am  ET

In this Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013 photo, Sophie Mortner, foreground right, reads aloud for youngsters attending LitCamp, a summer reading program offered through the nonprofit literacy organization LitWorld, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. "I often times pick and choose the book that I love," said Mortner, a camp counselor who assists with curriculum development. "Often times they choose that book the next day to read." (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For many students and teachers, summer vacation was more like summer term.

Reading lists. Science camps. Portfolio development. The to-do list for kids and teachers sound remarkably alike. Schools are on the hook to improve student performance on high-stakes tests, administrators are eyeing more science and technology instruction, and parents are demanding more for their children.

Some studies suggest students lose as much as two months of knowledge over the summer. Advocates say educators can't expect their students to succeed if they, too, spend the summer months poolside.

"Summer learning space is time for innovation," said Gary Huggins, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association. "Innovation doesn't flow easily into the school year."

That's why summer programs used the past few months to try new things.

Teachers in one of Chicago's struggling elementary schools huddled for two months this summer to retool the reading curriculum for first- and second-graders.

Elsewhere, more than 4,000 teachers turned to a weeklong lesson on water purification to see if parts of it could work during the school year.

In New York City's Harlem neighborhood, students spent six weeks flipping through books on everything from hip-hop to Depression-era toys in an effort to spark an interest in reading and narrow the gap between the scores of rich and poor students.

All were fresh approaches that could make their way into the school-year classrooms. Think of summer programs as a test drive for some lessons without the pressure, a chance to try something without consequences.

If things don't work out, the side effect is that maybe students don't forget so much as they learned last year.

"There's been all this work done and investment made over the last nine months and then that investment stops," said Pam Allyn, executive director of LitWorld, a literacy nonprofit. "For every kid -- no matter where they live -- out of school time is really problematic."

Allyn compares it to sports: "If you're going for a run or playing tennis, if you take two months off, you might have some muscle memory left but you're not going to be in the same shape."

That principle applies to students as well as teachers.

In Chicago, principal Shawn Jackson spent the better part of his summer meeting with colleagues to redesign the reading program at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy.

"It took us a good two months. We took the whole summer," he said.

Their answer: a stuffed animal called "CY-BEAR." Each student this fall will be given a stuffed bear that they will read to, reducing anxiety to perform well in front of classmates.

It sounds unusual, Jackson acknowledges, but studies have found it can help improve scores among students whose parents don't regularly read to them. That translates to needed gains; about 85 percent of Jackson's 930 students read below grade level and almost all come from low-income homes.

"During the school year, there are so many other variables that can come into play. Day-to-day operations, sometimes we get into their own silos, teachers have to worry about the 30 students in front of them," Jackson said.

So he and his team competed in the Chicago Public Education Fund's Summer Design Program, an innovation challenge that offered educators up to $10,000 to test their ideas.

"Most people would take the time to relax," Jackson said.

Instead, he and his team rewrote the school's reading program, overhauling how his youngest students spend two hours each day.

Discovery Education pulled together a free series of lessons rooted in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, as educators brand the emphasis. One lesson on water was downloaded by 4,000 summer educators.

The lesson-in-a-box offered summer school teachers a chance to try a new way to get to students interested in STEM subjects. Video, experiments, journals -- all ready for teachers and students to try to bring up their STEM literacy among fifth- to eighth-graders.

As a bonus for one of the nation's biggest education companies, it could land them new customers during the regular school year if teachers liked what they saw.

"Teachers are teaching all day, they're not given release time. They don't have the time among everything else to come up with these summer lessons," said Lance Rougeux, a former teacher who led the team that put together Discovery's STEM camp curriculum.

Among the ready-made lessons, there's one on water in which students build boats to transport weights, measure erosion and calculate the percentage of sugar found in various beverages, while also doing relay races with sponges and other competitions.

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