Imagine a six-year-old—let’s call her Angela—who has just graduated from Kindergarten at her public elementary school a couple of weeks ago. She is from a family of limited means, and her parents both work long hours to support her and her younger brothers. What do the next three months look like for students like Angela? Unfortunately, the days are too often full of TV and caring for younger siblings at a relative’s or neighbor’s home, with little or no access to outdoor activities, age-appropriate books, other children their age or experiences that will enhance and build on what they learned in school.
Now imagine Andre, also six years old and a recent Kindergarten graduate. Like Angela, Andre is from a low-income household and his parents are busy working to provide for their four children. Unlike Angela, Andre’s summer will be filled with books, robotics, nutritious meals, team sports and swimming. Andre will join thousands of children across the nation who attend academically focused summer learning programs.
Today is National Summer Learning Day, a day when hundreds of communities across the country are holding events to celebrate the importance of summer learning. You might think that kids wouldn’t find anything to celebrate about learning in the summer. But the reality is that for many children in low-income neighborhoods, summer is a dead-zone. Research from The Wallace Foundation confirms that low-income children fall behind academically over the summer and that this loss is cumulative and a major contributor to the achievement gap.
For too many children, summer is also a dangerous time for their health. According to a report released by The National Summer Learning Association, the break from school leaves many low-income children without access to healthy meals and physical activity. Researchers have found that children tend to gain weight two to three times faster during the summer as compared to the school year. Studies also show correlations between overweight children and poorer levels of academic achievement.
For thousands of children these problems will be averted as they arrive on college campuses and independent schools this summer to attend a tuition-free, high-quality summer learning program called Horizons. Horizons students will stay in the program for many years, beginning in Kindergarten, returning to the same campus summer after summer. Instead of losing academic ground, they will improve their reading and math skills as well as learn how to swim, play team-building games, go on field trips and begin to build life-long friendships. Horizons students will eat healthy food and many will learn to care for and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables in a community or school garden.
Horizons programs are popping up all over the country, with 26 programs in 11 states in 2012. Traditionally, Horizons programs have been run by independent schools, but in the past couple of years, colleges and universities have become interested in the Horizons model of serving low-income public school students in their communities. These schools see a good fit between Horizons and their own missions and goals --including building their student pipeline, providing clinical opportunities for graduate students, and participating in meaningful community partnerships.
Horizons is just one of many high-quality summer learning programs, but only a small fraction of the families who want and need them have access to programs like these. What’s more, summer learning programs are one of the first items cut when budgets get tight. It is proven that programs like Horizons can dramatically improve the academic and life trajectories for their students. The problem is there simply aren’t enough of these programs to meet the overwhelming demand.
On this National Summer Learning Day, we celebrate the work being done by many communities so that summer is a time for growth and inspiration for students like Andre. We need more resources devoted to summer learning to ensure that children like Angela are not left to fall further and further behind.
Lorna Smith is the chief executive officer of Horizons National
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.