Summer Learning Programs: Benefits Beyond Academics

By Jessica Kannam, AYPF Policy Research Assistant from American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF)

Blog series on the value of summer learning programs.

This blog was originally published by the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) on Tuesday, June 19, 2018 and is part two of a two-part blog series on the value of summer learning programs. Click here for part one.

As the school year ends, and summer approaches, summer learning is on my mind! A common case made for summer learning programs is to help minimize the “summer slide,” or loss of learning that occurs during the summer months when students may be engaged in less structured educational activities. A review of research indicates that on average, students’ achievement scores decline during the summer, students experience more learning loss in math, and the loss is larger in higher grades. Additionally, research shows that lower-income students disproportionally experience more learning loss than their higher-income peers, widening achievement gaps. In a RAND study of voluntary summer learning programs, there was promising evidence that high attendance in programs that provided high-quality instruction led to benefits in math and reading.

While summer learning programs can help stem the learning loss, they also provide value to children and youth in other important ways: they are a safe place to play and explore one’s passions, provide access to food, and assist with skill development and job training, to name a few. Read below to explore a few of these benefits.

Safe Place to Play and Explore One’s Passions

Summer learning programs can provide a safe space for children and young adults to learn, play, and explore their interests. With likely more flexibility than the traditional school day to provide opportunities like hands-on learning experiences and field trips, these programs allow youth to experiment with their passions and engage in experimental learning.

For example, Project Exploration is a non-profit science education organization that empowers and mentors youth underrepresented in STEM in Chicago through free STEM out-of-school time programs. Students can work alongside practicing scientists, explore disciplines like environmental science and engineering through hands-on projects, and build close relationships with mentors. Project Exploration offers sets of programs “organized around three phases of scientific inquiry:” discover, explore, and pursue. While some programs allow students to discover a range of STEM disciplines, others are targeted to explore certain topics, and others focus on developing skills and relationships that will allow students to pursue STEM after high school.

Provide Summer Meals

In 2013, 44% of children in the U.S. lived in low-income families, and approximately 20% of households with children experienced food insecurity or “a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods,” at some point during the year. Food insecurity is more likely during the summer, when children have less access to meal programs. Summer meals are available through the federally funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLA) to children in low-income areas during the summertime. Yet, in examining national participation in Summer Nutrition Programs, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) found that in July 2016, only 15 children received summer lunch for every 100 low-income students who received lunch during the 2015-2016 school year. Barriers such as the lack of access to meal sites and program awareness limit the children who benefit from these meal programs.

In addition to offering academic and other enrichment activities, summer learning programs can provide summer meals. YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs are organizations that often provide summer learning programs and are also common locations for summer meals. For some quick facts about the Summer Meals Program and how out-of-school time programs can get involved, check out Afterschool Alliance’s blog post. To explore local sites that serve summer meals, check out the 2018 Summer Meal Site Finder tool by the USDA.

Skill Development and Job Training

Summer learning programs can also help children and youth develop and strengthen social and emotional skills, foundational skills – whether you want to call them 21st century skills, soft skills, or employer-desired skills — and gain job training and experience. There is relative agreement across frameworks that skills like critical thinking, communication, and decision-making are essential to success in college, career, and life, and these skills can be developed in quality afterschool and summer learning programs.

After School Matters is one example of an afterschool and summer program that offers students the opportunity to develop workforce skills and gain job experience. The teen programming follows an apprenticeship, internship, or assistantship model with various levels of staff support and compensation in different content areas such as STEM, arts, and communications.

A Call to Action

Given that summer programming can provide opportunities to not only help lessen learning loss, but also serve as safe spaces to explore passions, provide summer meals, and develop essential college and career readiness skills, these programs serve as key levers to supporting youth to success. As Betsy Brand, Executive Director of AYPF, described in last week’s post, the demand for summer learning programs exceeds the supply. Findings from Afterschool Alliance’s America After 3PM survey reveals that while 33% of families had at least one child participate in a summer learning program in 2013, 51% of families wanted their children to be enrolled in a program in 2014. Additionally, cost and proximity are common factors that limit the options of quality summer programming for low-income families.

There is a desire for these programs that can support youth holistically in their development, and policymakers and funders must continue to invest in supporting and expanding access to quality summer learning programs.

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