For the Record: Summer learning loss

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Bit by bit, CPS has chipped away at efforts to create a non-traditional school calendar that would make better use of time to improve academics. The last nail in the coffin came earlier this year, when the Board of Education quietly approved a new calendar that will have students once again return to school after Labor Day. The move reversed last year’s decision to begin classes in late August and give students an early start on the year.

Meanwhile, at the same time officials decided to start the year earlier, they scrapped the district’s much-hyped Track E “year-round” calendar.

For now, teachers, parents, and administrators have seemingly back away from the topic that prompted the district to launch a Track E option in 2009: summer learning loss.

“Because [Track E] maximizes a student’s opportunity to learn, we have agreed with many of our principals, parents and community leaders to spread their school attendance more evenly throughout the year,” said then-CEO Ron Huberman in an April 2009 press release. “This means that instead of one long summer break, students get several shorter breaks throughout the year, which means greater learning opportunities.”

Principals had to apply to be a Track E school, and about a third of schools ended up on the schedule. 

Shawn Jackson, principal of Spencer Elementary on the West Side, says his school “wanted to make sure we had less interrupted time with our students, and the mid-summer start time gave us that opportunity.”

Research suggests that summer learning loss is particularly problematic for low-income students. For example, a John Hopkins study found that two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap in reading between poor and middle-class students is closely tied to unequal access to summer learning opportunities in elementary school. Further, a study from a Duke University researcher found that low-income students who go to year-round schools outperformed their counterparts on a traditional schedule.

Last year, the National Summer Learning Association released a survey of 500 teachers from 16 school districts nationwide, with 66 percent saying they spent 3-4 weeks re-teaching the previous years’ skills due to summer learning loss.

“The shorter summer break of the Track E schedule is beneficial in that the kids have less time to forget the information, so teachers don’t have to waste time re-teaching material that’s already been taught,” says Sarah Pitcock, NSLA president and CEO.

Logistics problems

CPS cited family scheduling concerns when it scrapped the Track E option in January 2013.

In practice, schools did face hurdles to implementing the calendar. Families with children in different schools found it hard to organize breaks and arrange for childcare. “All four of my kids are at different CPS schools, and that can make scheduling a real nightmare when you’re not all on the same school-year calendar,” says Kim Henderson, principal at Mollison Elementary School.

Teachers, too, faced problems. Chicago Teachers Union Recording Secretary Michael Brunson says teachers gave feedback and expressed that it was difficult to adjust to Track E and many teachers were no longer on the same schedule as the rest of their families.

“We’re used to the traditional calendar, and it just makes more sense,” says Brunson. “The multiple weeklong breaks and three- and four-day weekends scattered throughout the calendar were more disruptive than I think people anticipated they would be.”

Though the district championed Track E, officials never took the big step of placing the entire district on the year-round schedule to combat summer learning loss.

Finding more learning opportunity

For several years, CPS summer school options have been limited and classes are mostly for students who are at risk of being held back.

The city has stepped in to try and fill the bill and increase access to high-quality summer learning programs. In April, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an expansion of the Summer of Learning initiative. First launched last year, the Summer of Learning provides academic and job training opportunities during the summer through public and corporate or private partnerships.

On May 10, the city is holding Destination Chicago at Jones College Prep, a city-wide day-long fair where students can sample summer activities and programs.

As beneficial as they may be, these programs require students and families to take the initiative and sign up, while a year-round schedule or early start to the school year does not. 

Some schools are attempting to find ways to curb summer learning loss on their own. Spencer offers a technology “boot camp” over the summer and keeps its computer labs open for students and community members to use. Mollison hopes to resume a Step-Up program meant to prepare students for the next grade.

Pitcock notes that preventing summer learning loss and narrowing the achievement gap requires improving access to programs that are readily available for wealthier students.

“What it really comes down to how we’re getting [students] to use that time they are not in school,”says Pitcock. “You need to have high-quality, financially and geographically accessible programs in place for these kids so they aren’t stuck falling further behind each year.”