Summer Learning in Boston: Making it Fun, Making it Count

We’ve been hearing a lot this summer about retooled programs that are making learning fun for kids while combating the summer slide. Across the country, in cities from Jacksonville, Fla., to Oakland, CA, public school districts are partnering with nonprofit organizations to offer their students rich programming that combines rigorous academics with enrichment such as arts, outdoor exploration, and vocational experiences.

Last week CBASS had the chance to visit one such program. Thompson Island, located in Boston’s harbor and managed by the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, is home to a variety of outdoor adventure and experiential learning programs for youth—including one participant in Boston’s Summer Learning Project. A collaborative initiative between Boston Public Schools, the Boston Opportunity Agenda, and Boston After School and Beyond, the Summer Learning Project draws on the resources of schools and community organizations to offer k-12 students opportunities to increase their academic achievement as well as build valuable skills for school and career success.

Boston Summer Learning Project students and their counselors exploring Thompson Island.

Boston Summer Learning Project students and their counselors exploring Thompson Island.

What does summer learning look like in Boston? Well, for rising fourth-graders on Thompson Island, it includes a ferry ride, team building, and hands-on science learning. The day begins at 9 am, when school buses drop students off at the dock to be greeted by Boston Public Schools teachers and Outward Bound facilitators and ferried over to the island. As at all Summer Learning Project sites, students spend mornings buckling down on math and reading in classrooms, but in the afternoons they’re outdoors, working to balance as a group on a teeter-totter in the woods, or exploring the island with rangers from the National Park Service. The latter is particularly popular. With a diverse environment that includes bluffs, intertidal zones, and salt marshes, “every little ecosystem becomes a learning place,” says Arthur Pearson, president and CEO of Thompson Island Outward Bound.

That’s what keeps the kids coming back. Tracey Brown, an eighth-grade teacher at the Orchard Gardens K-8 school in Boston, says of Thompson Island, “Students whom we have a challenge keeping engaged in the classroom are engaged out here.” They get to go somewhere entirely off their map, learn new skills, and contribute to a team. And those things, says Ms. Brown, are what make summer experiences like this one so valuable.

The numbers back her up. Since launching in 2010, the Summer Learning Project has grown from 232 students, five schools, and seven community partners to 1,700 students, 51 schools, and 18 nonprofit partners. So far this summer, attendance across sites has been 86 percent. And just today, the National Summer Learning Association awarded the Boston Summer Learning Project its New York Life Excellence in Summer Learning Award.

What are factors of the project’s success? For one, everyone has a reason to like it. According to Chris Smith, executive director of Boston Beyond, “Our programs are rigorous enough to count for school credit and engaging enough to attract students voluntarily.” As a result, kids, parents, teachers, superintendents, and even researchers can get on board.

Thompson Island Outward Bound president and CEO Arthur Pearson.

Thompson Island Outward Bound president and CEO Arthur Pearson.

For another, the project makes effective use of partnerships. BPS teachers and Outward Bound facilitators train, teach, and de-brief together; their joint teaching allows them to bring both instructional and youth development expertise to activities with the kids. On a larger scale, schools and community-based organizations benefit from adopting and implementing common goals and shared accountability. “Being a part of this larger partnership has been transformational,” says Pearson. “It has given us greater organizational purpose.”

But I have a feeling that the biggest reason for SLP’s success might just be the simplest one. In the words of one student standing on the top deck of the ferry out to Thompson Island, wind blowing hair across his eyes and a grin spreading across his face, “It’s fun!”

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