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Originally published July 30, 2013 at 5:32 PM | Page modified July 30, 2013 at 5:42 PM

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Guest: Protecting kids from summer-learning loss

Gains made during the school year are lost during summer break if young people are not engaged in some kind of learning activity, guest columnists Mari Offenbecher and Robert B. Gilbertson Jr. argue.

Special to The Times

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MANY children in our communities equate summer with vacation, adventure and new experiences that create lasting memories. However, for more than 472,000 of Washington’s children living in poverty, summer means boredom and hunger. These kids have limited access to fun summer programs that keep them learning, nourished and ready to return to school on track and at grade level in the fall.

While research from as early as the 1900s indicates that crucial knowledge is lost over the summer, we have only begun to address this issue in policy and funding arenas.

What we do know is that summer learning matters. Gains made during the school year are lost during those three months if young people are not engaged in some kind of learning activity.

Research also tells us that the cumulative impact of summer-learning loss is the single greatest contributor to the achievement gap for ninth-graders — which is when school drop-out rates go up.

The good news is that summer-learning programs can make a difference. According to a report released in June 2011 by the RAND Corp., students who regularly attend quality summer-learning programs have positive outcomes, and the effects of these programs can endure for at least two years after the program.

Washington student data tells a story of inequity and a system that is not meeting the needs of all students. It’s creating a widening achievement gap with low-income students and students of color experiencing a disproportionate impact. In fact, Washington is in the bottom five states nationwide when it comes to closing the achievement gap.

All children deserve an education that allows them to achieve and graduate career and college ready. In a state with rapidly changing demographics and a growing number of young people of color in our future, we cannot allow such disparity to continue.

Summer needs to be brought to the forefront and included in conversations about supporting students, especially low-income students and students of color. The best way to combat summer-learning loss is to increase access to learning opportunities for all children.

The National Summer Learning Association has released several publications, including a New Vision for Summer School, reiterating time and time again that summer is an opportunity to expose young people to opportunities they may not otherwise experience through field trips, outdoor education and other experiential and hands-on activities that support learning and keep kids engaged.

School’s Out Washington and our state’s after-school and youth-development programs support and provide quality summer-learning programs.

In Seattle, the YMCA of Greater Seattle launched its first elementary-summer program in 2011 at High Point’s West Seattle Elementary School, then expanded in 2012 to help more than 100 students.

Results from the 2012 program show that students made improvements both in math and reading skills. It also gave them a chance to connect with peers and experience some fun summer activities.

With no public money specifically designated to support summer-learning programs, elevating summer learning in funding conversations is critical.

Let’s create a state legislative work group to examine resources to fund summer programs and other expanded learning opportunities that support students’ learning during nonschool hours.

For example, the Legislature could develop policies to use summer-learning programs as an essential component of school reform and school-turnaround plans through the use of federal Title I and School Turnaround funds.

We could also make a big difference by improving partnerships and coordination between schools, community organizations and businesses to leverage resources at the local level to support summer programs.

We have research and knowledge telling us quality summer programs make a difference and the time is ripe to expand access for children and youth who need them most.

Mari Offenbecher is CEO of School’s Out Washington and Robert B. Gilbertson Jr. is president and CEO for the YMCA of Greater Seattle.

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