03/29/2013 02:07 pm ET Updated May 29, 2013

School Vacations and the Achievement Gap: Breaking the Connection

D.C. public schools are on spring break this week. Middle class and wealthier children will spend the time vacationing or attending a wide range of instructive camps, focusing on everything from soccer to engineering. Low-income children, whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, will likely have a week of unstructured and potentially unsupervised time. This difference in how children spend their spring break is a small-scale view of the more important difference between poor children and their wealthier counterparts during the summer and after school.

The "brain drain" of summer is a sibling of the achievement gap, and they build off each other. Low-income children lose between one and three months of learning over summer breaks in elementary schools, while their wealthier peers do not. Even DCPS attributes this to the disparity in opportunities for enrichment at home between the poorer and richer children -- like the spring break camps, but summer programs and afterschool programs during the year as well. Poor children fall further and further behind as they age, and the achievement gap widens during middle and high school. While higher achieving, higher income students are routed into college prep classes and then college itself, their peers are still trying to catch up, and college -- with its promise of advancement -- remains out of reach for most.

Research traces the achievement gap in high school directly back to elementary school. It's incredibly difficult to fill in this gap as students grow, so like with many problems, the solution is to nip it in the bud. The way to do this is to focus on year-round learning opportunities for elementary school children. Consistent, quality programming for younger children will keep them connected with school and allow lower-income students to keep up with their peers. This year DCPS has been able to fund more instructive afterschool programs at select schools through Proving What's Possible grants. Hopefully results from the first year of these program will be positive and the programs can be expanded to include more children at more schools.

An important side note is that hunger doesn't take a vacation when school lets out, as the Food Research and Action Center has noted in summer nutrition reports. D.C. takes full advantage of the federal summer food service program, and has ranked first in the nation for several years in serving the highest percentage of low-income children. But weekends and school vacations still have room for improvement in providing food -- and lots of room for improvement in providing food for thought -- to D.C.'s vulnerable children.

I encourage all adults who interact with children to pay attention next week when everyone returns from spring break. How did the young people in your lives fare? What did they do with their free time? Did they go hungry? As a community we need to think broadly about solutions that will allow students to take a break from school without pushing poor families to their breaking points.