08/21/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Summer Learning: Making The City A Summer Camp

As students start heading back to school, many won't be ready to hit the ground running -- instead they'll be playing catch-up. In a recent survey from the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), two-thirds of teachers polled said they spend at least a month re-teaching old material when students return from summer break.

The concept of the "summer slide" isn't new, and the suggested ways to address it are getting stale. Educators and parents alike struggle to find the solution, trying to find a balance between unstructured play and educational activities. The flashcards and workbooks only go so far when there's sunshine and a playground waiting just outside, or perhaps, a couch and a video game in the other room.

What's being overlooked are the resources readily available in the community that combine these aspects of play and learn: libraries, museums, art venues and other spaces which not only offer programs that can help improve reading and mathematical comprehension, but foster creative, analytical and technological skills students need to thrive in today's digital world. Really, these spaces can turn a whole city into a summer camp.

We can't rely on school systems -- public or otherwise -- to do this by themselves. School districts are faced with various challenges -- including financial and staffing obstacles -- when it comes to implementing summer learning programs. A recent study from the RAND Corporation finds that cost is the main barrier to summer program implementation, particularly among lower-income school districts, and research consistently shows that summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students.

The RAND report -- based on interviews with city representatives, summer learning staff and external partners from five urban districts - explains that other challenges to maintaining summer learning programs include a lack of unified vision for the program, as well as infrastructure constraints like the absence of air conditioning. However, the report also states that partnerships between districts and community-based organizations add benefits and lower costs.

This summer, cities everywhere turn their museums, parks, libraries and arts spaces into venues for summer learning, transforming cities into the new summer camps.

These community assets have an opportunity to provide programs that not only spark the imaginations and analytical skills of students, but help close the learning gap for students across various income and access levels. Working together, we -- parents, educators, business leaders and local officials -- need to help make this happen.

In Pittsburgh, youth-serving groups and educationally-driven venues have come together to form the Kids+Creativity Network - a consortium of more than 100 organizations committed to remaking learning for youth in the greater Pittsburgh region. This summer, we've worked to connect and coordinate summer enrichment opportunities at museums, libraries, community centers, and other programs happening across the city of Pittsburgh through Hive Days of Summer - a three-month campaign that provided youth in Pittsburgh with opportunities to learn and be creative in open, accessible, and fun social settings.

Hive Days of Summer included more than 30 activities, events and workshops for teens and tweens. With Youth Invasion at The Andy Warhol Museum, teens demonstrated their unique take on Andy Warhol through performances, a youth-designed fashion show, digital art making and a dance party. The Labs @ Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a free after-school digital media lab for teenagers, teamed with contemporary art museum The Mattress Factory to create an interactive art experience that taught youth how to make art that appeals to all the senses. The Maker Party celebrated maker-culture with hands-on activities that included game design using computer programming and robotics, and creating websites using HTML5 and CSS3 coding.

Pittsburgh wasn't the only city living and breathing as a summer camp this year. As noted in The New York Times, cities like Jacksonville, Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco are implementing summer learning programs with the support of community spaces and philanthropic organizations. And in Chicago, the city's Summer of Learning initiative encouraged kids to get the most out of their summer by earning badges to show they'd learned something new and developed different skills.

These partnerships and programs demonstrate that learning doesn't have to stop when school lets out. They are removing the stigma of "summer school" - shifting the perspective of it from a requirement for "bad students" to a fresh and reinvented approach for all youth to participate in. The partnerships and programs that turned the city into a summer camp this year should be a model for cities across the country to put into effect next year. They are helping to prevent the summer slide, improving student outcomes, increasing access to learning across all demographics, and giving youth the chance to learn in the fun and digital environments they prefer.