Ready for Fall? Boston’s Lessons in Summer Learning

Guest post by Chris Smith

When it comes to paving a pathway to graduation, Boston has a lot to celebrate. This year, Boston cut the annual high school drop-out rate by one-third. It now stands at a historic low of 4.5 percent. Boston has also increased college graduation rates from 35% to nearly 50%. Despite this progress, many of Boston’s youth remain unprepared to navigate the challenges of college and careers. In particular, low-income students still remain at a substantial disadvantage in terms of entering, persisting, and completing a post-secondary credential.

Many studies suggest that the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers is explained largely by unequal access to learning opportunities beyond the school day. Amidst growing recognition of the opportunity gap and increased understanding of how skills contribute to student success, the city began to explore some critical questions: Can Boston successfully attract large numbers of low-income students to participate in voluntary summer programs? And more importantly, can high-quality summer learning help improve educational outcomes for at-risk youth?

In partnership with The Wallace Foundation and RAND, Boston was one of five cities Ready for Fallacross the country selected to participate in the largest study to date to measure the effects of summer learning. With the release of the near-term findings in Ready for Fall?, we now have concrete evidence that we’re on the right track to close the persistent achievement gap.

Here’s what we know so far:

  • There is great demand among low-income students and families for free, voluntary summer learning programs.
  • Children who participated in these programs entered school in the fall with a meaningful advantage in math, as compared to students who applied for the program but weren’t selected.
  • While the study did not reveal differences in reading scores between the two groups of students, the study found that factors such as high instructional quality, site orderliness, and grade-level teachers are associated with positive reading outcomes for children.
  • Though just shy of statistical significance, Boston was the only city to see a positive indicator on measures of social-emotional skills.

These near-term results affirm all the hard work of our educators, schools, community-based partners, and civic leaders. We are perhaps most proud of Boston’s positive boost in social-emotional learning. Through training and joint planning, Boston teachers and nonprofit staff joined forces to intentionally target students’ social-emotional development.

While rigorous academic preparation is certainly crucial to success, it is only one piece of the puzzle. In order to be successful in college and beyond, children also need ample opportunities to acquire vital skills such as perseverance, creativity, and critical thinking, which we call “power skills.” As evidenced by this study, summer is a great space to start.

Ultimately, this is only the first chapter in an ongoing story about summer learning and the critical need to expand quality out-of-school learning opportunities for all students. Building on these lessons and pursing a comprehensive, coordinated approach to close the opportunity gap will continue to drive our work as we move forward.

Chris Smith is the Executive Director of Boston After School & Beyond.

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