LEWISTON, Maine — You might see miles of smiles when schools close for the summer, but the weeks off have a negative effect on student learning, educators say.
National research shows students from middle-class families lose the equivalent of a month of instruction during the summer. With Maine spending $906.5 million on prekindergarten-through-grade-12 education this year, that’s like throwing $100 million out the window.
Lewiston will try to do something about it.
City students, on average, lose two months of learning, said Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster.
Absent any state mandate to change, Webster’s solution: a different type of summer school.
The new program at Longley Elementary, a turnaround school that receives federal money to boost poor test scores, will run from June 25 to Aug. 3.
It’s being offered in addition to increased summer programs that help students catch up or pass classes they have failed. If Webster’s summer school works, he plans to expand it to other Lewiston schools.
The summer school will be different from school the rest of the year. It will be informal, not mandatory. Classes will be held three hours a day for four days a week. On the fifth day there will be a fun enrichment activity — a field trip to Reid State Park that enforces lessons of water, plant and animal life, for example. Of Longley’s 320 students, 172 are enrolled.
Lewiston discovered the districtwide, two-month learning loss last year when student test scores from September were compared to the previous June.
“Typically, teachers have looked at the fall scores and used them to establish a goal for the student, then they see how they do after the spring test,” Webster said. Less typical is to compare September to the previous June.
The summer learning loss is an easy problem to ignore, especially in districts where most students are performing at their grade levels. But even those students are losing, Webster said.
The analysis was done for all Lewiston students: English Language Learning students, poor and disadvantaged students, special education and the general population.
The learning loss was greater among the poor, the ELL students and those with disabilities. At Longley, a school where most students are poor, it took until January to get many students back to where they were the previous May, Principal Linda St. Andre said.
The vacation learning loss is well-documented, going back 20 to 25 years, said David Silvernail, director of the Education Policy and Research Center at the University of Southern Maine. “It’s loss through nonuse.”
The problem is known, but it’s not well-known, Silvernail said, explaining that educators know about it, but many community members and parents do not. National studies attribute multiple years of summer learning loss to three-fourths of a lack of student performance, he said.
To end the loss, the first step should be to educate communities, Silvernail said, and to show the need to ensure instruction doesn’t stop for 10 or 11 weeks. Existing summer school programs are typically only for students who have failed classes. Some communities offer enrichment programs when funding is available.
Auburn School Department’s Shelly Mogul, who’s in charge of curriculum, said she agrees with Webster that students lose during the summer, especially those who are struggling. That’s why, she said, Auburn brought back summer school last year for high school freshmen and seniors.
Auburn educators informally have discussed changing the calendar so the summer vacation isn’t as long, but that has not come up formally, Mogul said. “If we moved in that direction, our guess is it would have an impact.”
Realizing Lewiston students are losing two months a year was a wake-up call, Webster said.
“Schools need to take responsibility for students on a 12-month basis,” he said. “We may wish that things were happening at home, but the fact remains that schools are judged on success or failure in educating students.”
In many instances, students are doing little, if any, reading in the summer, he said. Too many “aren’t involved in any atmosphere of inquiry or learning.”
The United States school year is short compared to other countries, 175 days versus 225 days. But expanding the school year would not be socially acceptable, Webster predicted.
“Maine is Vacationland,” he said. “In Aroostook County, they still have their schedule around the potato season.”
In Webster’s former Ellsworth-area school district, tourism is big. There’s no way that the school board would consider starting school before Labor Day, he said. And expanding the school year would be expensive.
School-run summer enrichment programs, however, can be created for much less, Webster said. “It’s a win-win. For students who work, they can still work. Politically, we aren’t changing the school year.”
The Longley program this year will be paid for by a federal turnaround school grant. Next summer, it will be covered by the Lewiston budget.
One way Webster will cut costs in 2013 is by enlisting older students as tutors.
Some enrichment activities will come from the private sector, the Tree Street Youth Center or L/A Arts.
Students need quality field trips, Webster said, adding that many Lewiston kids don’t get out of the city. Students can learn much from field trips to the Maine State Museum in Augusta or a historical walking tour in Boston.
Lewiston schools will discuss more flexibility to offer more field trips, Webster said. “Seeing what is out there in the world is a critical component to opening students’ eyes to possibilities.”
Another way Webster will cut costs is by changing the days some teachers work. Some will start three weeks after school begins in the fall and will work three weeks during the summer. Others will be paid a stipend to work in the summer.
Lewiston Education Association representative Steve Gagne said the teachers’ union shares the concern that students regress in the summer and need continued learning. A summer program could allow teachers opportunities to try new strategies and work with smaller groups, he said.
But teachers have a couple of concerns, Gagne said. One concern is whether teachers who work later in the fall will be left out of the learning community, missing out as school begins. Another is whether school buildings will be too hot for optimum teaching during the summer. Overall, teachers are taking a wait-and-see attitude, Gagne said.
Webster agrees that no air conditioning in schools is a worry. He plans to work on air conditioning school libraries, which could provide teaching space when classrooms get too hot.
It’s not uncommon for temperatures in schools to get above 90 degrees in the summer. “That ruins the opportunity for learning,” Webster said. This summer, academics will be offered in the morning with the hope that “we’ll be out of the school by the time it’s unbearable.”
If he had the money, Webster said he would hire a full-time director of afterschool and summer learning. Regular classroom teachers would be connected with students all summer as part of individual students’ educational plans. Eventually, that may happen, he said.
The prospect of halting learning loss with the new program is exciting, Webster said. “It remains to be seen how this will work. To my knowledge, we’re the first district [in Maine] doing this.”
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