07/19/2011 01:45 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2011

A Corporate Partnership That's Creating Smarter Summers

With business schools increasing their focus on corporate responsibility and partnerships, dedicating a news section to corporate ethics and social responsibility (see reports from Aman Singh), and more companies partnering with nonprofits to invest in sustainability and education initiatives -- it's always fascinating to examine current best practices.

The Walmart Foundation, the philanthropic arm of corporate giant Walmart, and the National Summer Learning Association have partnered for an initiative called Smarter Summers.

Smarter Summers will serve 20,000 middle school youth with summer learning opportunities and an $11.5 million investment from the Walmart Foundation. Summer Advantage USA (a grantee) and other nonprofits are honored to be part of the collaboration. We asked Matthew Boulay, interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, to discuss the new partnership.

Phalen: What is Smarter Summers?

Boulay: Smarter Summers is an initiative of the Association and the Walmart Foundation to provide summer learning opportunities for middle-schoolers in ten cities across the country for the next three years. Walmart wanted to create summer opportunities for students by providing them with free meals, learning programs, and job opportunities--they recently announced a $25 million summer giving initiative. Walmart approached us to lead the summer learning aspect. We chose four summer learning program providers to administer the program, including Summer Advantage USA, that have achieved excellent ratings on our rubric for high-quality summer learning.

That rubric covers criteria like how the long programs are in session and how well programs integrate their academic strategies into enriching activities, accommodate different learning styles, create a spirit of community and pride among participants, and promote creative thinking.

Phalen: Can you discuss why the project focuses on middle school?

Boulay: Statistically, if students are not reading at grade level in middle school, then they are more likely to drop out of high school. They are also at the highest risk for obesity than any other age group. The Association's most basic goal is to stop the disproportionate summer learning loss between lower- and higher-income students. As recent research from the RAND Corporation affirms, all students are at risk of losing academic skills during the summer, but low-income students typically lose an additional two months of reading skills while their higher-income peers actually make gains. This loss is cumulative.

It comes down to the fact that higher-income students are participating in summer activities - trips, enriching camps, private tutoring - that their families can provide, while others fall back because their parents cannot afford those activities.

Students engaged in summer learning. Courtesy of

Phalen: Summer Advantage USA is really excited to be a part of Smarter Summers. What is the Association hoping to achieve with this initiative?

Boulay: Accessible high quality summer learning programs designed to serve low-income students and their needs can make a transformative difference not only for the summer, but for these students' entire school career. In addition to providing more of those opportunities for youth, we hope this partnership with the Walmart Foundation will teach the summer learning field and other private and public funders valuable lessons about how to bring great programs to scale in urban school districts. Right now, extreme budget cuts are forcing many school districts to cut their summer programs, create a shorter school year, or even go to a four-day week, as The New York Times recently reported.

Education time is taking a hard hit, despite the fact that many educators and even President Obama agree that kids need more hours for learning. We hope Smarter Summers will be one more high-impact demonstration that summer learning programs are worth much more than they cost to provide.

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Without question, the collaboration between the Walmart Foundation and National Summer Learning Association is an example of the power of partnerships to transform and invigorate communities.