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Program Staving Off Summer Slide For San Diego Students

— Summer is supposed to be a glorious stretch of downtime for kids, when they can go to the beach or maybe to camp without the pressures of school. But ask a few students at Clairemont’s Marston Middle School about what their ‘What I Did Last Summer’ essays would be about and they paint a decidedly less idyllic picture.

Aired 7/17/12 on KPBS News.

Most San Diego students have hit summer’s midway point. And parents may be hearing complaints of boredom. In addition to driving adults crazy, idle summers can have academic consequences.

Instructor Alejandra Chavez chooses between students vying for a chance to write n the board during a morning reading class during the Summer Adventures program at Marson Middle School, July 10, 2012.
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Above: Instructor Alejandra Chavez chooses between students vying for a chance to write n the board during a morning reading class during the Summer Adventures program at Marson Middle School, July 10, 2012.

“You just sit there and watch TV,” said Perla Rangel.

Her classmate Kevin Sy said the same. “I just sit there and watch TV or go on the laptop.”

When David Rivas Jimenz recalled what he did last summer, he said, “Nothing, I just stayed home.”

That TV-watching and internet surfing leads to something called summer slide.

Marston Vice Principal Alex Nguyen said teachers plan for students who return in the fall with math and reading levels lower than when school let out for summer.

“In the first couple weeks we’re trying to catch up with the kids that are not in the summer program or the summer school," she said. "So, we see that and we kind of build that around that. So the first couple of weeks it’s a quick orientation and quick review of basic skills just to catch them up.”

But some students never catch up.

A study from Johns Hopkins University researchers followed students over five years and found that those from low, middle and high-income families made similar test score gains in math and reading during the school year. But over the summers low-income students made no progress or backtracked in those areas while high-income students continued to advance. The difference may be access to sometimes expensive summer camps or even just to the library and parents that encourage summer reading.

State funding cuts have meant fewer summer school seats even for San Diego Unified students in danger of being held back. But for four weeks this summer about 150 rising 6th, 7th and 8th graders are taking part in the Summer Adventures program at Marston. The free program run by THINK Together, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit, is trying to prevent the summer-time gap on eight different middle school campuses across the city for a second year in a row.

Students spend the morning in math and English classes and the afternoons rotating between club activities like art, fashion, cooking and science. But even in the academic classes instructors aren’t relying on the kinds of worksheets kids might see during the normal school year, according to Marston’s program coordinator Kent Smith.

“A lot of the activities that we do are hands-on, it’s interactive. Some may call it disguised learning because some of the students may not even know that they’re learning, but they really are,” he said.

But the learning isn’t that disguised from 12-year-old Monica Figueroa. She thinks the activities just make it more fun.

“We’re reading the book, Holes, and we did an activity where everyone acts like they’re a character in the book and we get to know more about the characters,” she said.

Her classmate Rangel, 12, said even subjects she usually thinks are boring have been fun this summer.

“I didn’t like science because you just sit there and watch videos about animals and that. But this year, right now it’s been more fun because you get more on-hands projects.”

Rangel said a field trip to the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center was her favorite activity so far and that she was really excited about going to a Padres game during the final week of camp.

But all of the fun has a serious payout. A THINK Together spokesperson said about three-quarters of the students who attended the group's programs last summer rose a whole grade level in math.

The Summer Adventures program is free and was open to any city middle school student on a first-come, first-served basis thanks to an initiative called Smarter Summers, which is a partnership between the National Summer Learning Association and the Walmart Foundation. Nguyen believes that open-door policy is key at a school like Marston, where more than 70 percent of students come from low-income households.

“Some of our kids don’t have that if this does not exist," she said. "Meaning parents can’t really afford for the kids to go off and do their own thing. And with this program it’s so important because it offers math, science, technology and the academic part too, which is math and English. And even thought it’s just a couple hours a day I think it helps the kids focus.”

About 1,300 San Diego Unified students are enrolled in Summer Adventures at it's eight campuses this year. But in a school district with more than 80,000 low-income students San Diego is probably a long way off from a summer vacation without academic consequences.

Video by Nicholas McVicker

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