THE BLOG
08/02/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

Smarter Summers: Keeping Kids Engaged During Crucial Summer Months

When school doors close for the summer months, studies show the learning gap widens drastically for kids from low-income families compared to their more advantaged peers. Researchers have now begun to quantify how this summer learning gap can have life-changing consequences for children.

A study by Johns Hopkins sociology professor Karl Alexander shows that when kids aren't actively engaged in stimulating summer programs such as museum outings, summer camp stays and visits to the library, they fall behind their peers in academic achievements. Alexander's study found that approximately 2/3 of the ninth grade academic achievement gap between disadvantaged youth and their better resourced counterparts can be explained by summer learning loss during the elementary school years. Summer after summer, the widening gap can make the difference between whether students set their sights on a college degree or drop out of high school.

Prompted by the evidence that quality programs are just as vital during the summer months as during the school year, the United Way of Greater Houston asked partner agencies to propose collaborative projects that address summer learning loss. The response was an encouraging variety of innovative, fun and stimulating programs. As a result, the United Way invested $250,000 across 20+ agencies to support projects focused on stemming summer learning loss and improving school-based transitions.

Several organizations developed programs that address the need to improve science, technology, education and math (STEM) skills in students. Digital Game Design is an eight-week computer game design program that helps kids learn math and science skills while creating something they all love -- video games! Not only is the program fun for the students, there are game industry professionals who serve as mentors, ensuring the participants have access to real world examples of how their new skills could be applied in the future. This innovative collaboration between Chinese Community Center; Community Family Centers; Houston Area Urban League and Neighborhood Centers, Inc., will have touched 148 young people by the end of the summer. Also STEM-focused, the Electronics Program teaches kids to build electronic instruments through music and sound engineering. This collaborative effort by MECA and Community Family Centers culminates in a concert featuring the students playing with professional performers, giving the kids a taste of what they can achieve through music.

Of course, reading is important to the summer learning equation. Children who do not read in the vacation months lose two-to-three months of reading development, according to a University of Tennessee study. This creates a three-to-four month learning gap annually and causes the non-readers to fall behind.

Recognizing that having access to books at home can increase the level of education a child attains, this summer United Way was able to support book clubs for 700 students at 23 sites throughout Greater Houston. In addition, generously donated books enabled us to provide 80 kids with 20 books each of their choosing to read over the summer. What's significant about the number 20? We learned it's the minimum number of books necessary to propel a child to a higher level of education.

Game-based learning programs and widening access to books are just a few of the myriad of summertime learning programs being created in this community. They illustrate just a few of the wide spectrum of ways we can all attack the systemic problem of kids falling back academically in communities across the nation.

Combatting summer learning loss doesn't just happen on its own. Here in Houston, we recognize that it's a collaborative effort that takes many minds and hearts working together --including our United Way, community agencies, educators, volunteers and, of course, parents. Considering the huge difference it can make in a child's life and future, I urge every community to redouble its efforts to reach their less economically advantaged children with fun, stimulating summer programs that keep them learning and thriving. Let's not allow the doldrums of summer to dull any child's chance to reach his or her full potential.

Authored by:

Anna M. Babin, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Houston, leads an organization that is focused on generating positive, systemic change in the Greater Houston area by convening community partners and providing strategic investments focused on making a difference for youth, families, seniors and people rebuilding their lives.