Summer is a wonderful time for children to swim, play, and simply act like kids. Unfortunately, summer is also a time that determines if children are going to advance, tread water, or slide back in their academic progress.
At Idaho Kids Count we collect and study data on the well being of children. We know that kids without access to summer activities lose knowledge from the school year, while kids with more opportunities continue to learn during the break.
When school ends and children stop learning and lose skills, this is called the "summer slide."Children without access to learning opportunities can lose up to three months of the reading comprehension skills they built during the school year.
Most young people experience a slowdown in learning over the summer, but we see a dramatic gap when comparing children from low-income and middle-income families.
Children from middle-income families start their first year of kindergarten more advanced than those from low-income families. During the school year, both learn at the same rate. But when summer comes around, the middle-income children enjoy enriching activities like library summer reading programs. They advance their skills by one or two months, while the low-income children slide back, losing precious time and skills.
This pattern repeats itself every summer. By fifth grade, there is a 2 to 3 year gap in reading comprehension skills. By ninth grade, the summer slide accounts for about two-thirds of the reading gap.
The Idaho State Department of Education reports that in spring of 2012, 82 percent of kindergarteners had grade-level reading skills (i.e. scored 'benchmark' on the Idaho Reading Indicator). When those same first-graders returned in the fall, only 64 percent were at grade level.
Our collective investment in our children's reading skills is critical to ensuring we have strong communities in which young adults are prepared for bright futures. Summer learning loss is a hole in the bucket, letting some of that investment slip away every year.
The good news is that Idaho offers summer learning programs in many communities. Many of these programs are free or have scholarships for low-income families. Programs held at libraries, parks, community centers, and museums as well as online resources can help fight the summer slide. Research suggests that summer programs with small class sizes, experienced teachers, challenging content, group learning, individual support and hands-on activities can maximize learning.
Libraries can also help immensely. In 2011, Idaho libraries saw more than 69,000 students participate in summer reading programs. The number of books kids read over the summer is directly related with how much a child learns. When children have guidance in librariesan adult directing them to choose challenging booksthey will improve their reading ability instead of treading water.
This summer, let's help the children in our families and neighborhoods continue to learn. With more trips to the library and some extra effort to make everyday experiences educational, our children can be ready when school starts in the fall.
Lauren Necochea is the director of Idaho Kids Count, a nonprofit program of Mountain States Group, Inc., which engages citizens and policy makers in nonpartisan, research-based discussions to improve outcomes for Idaho's children.