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Zoos and museums for all? A push to make summer culture more accessible

Why We Wrote This

When low-income students have less access to enrichment activities, it widens the learning gap between them and their better-resourced peers. The summer months are a time to address that. 

Alvin Buyinza/The Christian Science Monitor
Students visit the Bird's World Exhibit as part of the Franklin Park Zoo's summer learning program in Boston. The zoo participates in 5th Quarter of Learning, a Boston-based partnership between cultural organizations and city government.

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Summer is a time for swimming pools and sitting on stoops. But it is also a time when learning gaps can widen for students. During June, July, and August, kids from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately less likely to visit museums and other places that connect them with shared culture, according to a study released in May by the US Department of Education. While 54 percent of kids entering first grade from poor backgrounds visited a zoo during the summer, for example, 69 percent of their nonpoor counterparts did. But partnerships are forming between cultural organizations and local governments to try to reduce that disparity, prompted in part by the potential for student academic gains. “The experience of belonging to a natural or cultural or neighborhood institution is part of learning,” says Chris Smith, executive director of Boston After School & Beyond. “[O]ur goal is to make sure that the entire city is a classroom.”

It’s a hot, crowded afternoon at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and Dawn Czaja’s class of rising fourth and fifth graders clings to the fence, peering into the zoo’s barn. A zookeeper corrals two stocky, black Guinea hogs into a mound of hay next to the fence. “Hello Cordelia,” a few students coo as they brush their hands against the rough coat of one of the pigs. Over the past weeks, the kids have come to know the animals here well. For them, this isn’t a field trip, it’s what Ms. Czaja, a Boston public school teacher, calls, “zoo school.”

Czaja’s students are enrolled in a summer program called 5th Quarter of Learning facilitated by the public-private partnership, Boston After School & Beyond. The initiative, which officially began last year, connects Boston Public School students with cultural anchor institutions, including museums, community centers, and zoos and aquariums to help enrich student learning when school isn’t in session.

During the summer, kids from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately less likely to visit to these kinds of institutions, according to a study released in May by the US Department of Education. While 54 percent of kids entering first grade from poor backgrounds visited a zoo during the summer, 69 percent of their nonpoor counterparts did.

With that imbalance in mind, some culture and education organizations have begun to form partnerships with local governments to better connect low-income students with enriching summer learning activities. In Boston, 5th Quarter of Learning and another new project, the EBT Card to Culture program, are offering steps toward that end.

“If we think about what are the benefits [to visiting cultural institutions], I think that some of the research that we've done has shown that, in general, there seems to be ... a broadening effect,” says Brian Kisida, an economics professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “The idea there is that, the world is a big, complicated, interesting place... It’s incredibly enriching to know about that more and experience that more through arts, and cultural activities, and enriching educational experiences.”

At the Discovery Museum in Acton, Mass., children learn critical math, science, and social skills through active play – including engineering archways out of giant blocks and exploring the massive onsite treehouse.

“A lot of what we hear from teachers is that helping kids get ready, to get excited about learning, to be curious and to be creative is really the key thing that they need to be able to support the formal learning world,” says Discovery Museum CEO Neil Gordon.

Enrichment, say others, provides important educational links. “Kids go to a zoo, they might for the first time understand and make connections to biology. They go to a science museum, they might for the first time understand what careers are available in science.... It gives them the ‘why’ for what they’re learning,” says Brenda McLaughlin, chief strategy officer for Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), a nonprofit providing educational enrichment year-round to underperforming students across the country. 

The Discovery Museum participates in the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s EBT Card to Culture program, which began in 2017. The initiative assists museums, theaters, and a number of other arts and education sites around the state in providing discounts to families that use Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, a tool for accessing welfare resources.

“One of the things … that we view as important for us to do is make what we do at the museum more accessible to all families, all kids,” says Mr. Gordon.

In 2014, the museum began offering one-dollar admission, but last year’s unveiling of the EBT Card to Culture program extended its reach to low-income families across eastern Massachusetts and replicated the museum’s approach at more than 150 institutions. Participation in the program grew from 1221 in 2014 to 4231 in 2017 – despite the fact that the museum closed halfway through last year for renovations.  

Alvin Buyinza/The Christian Science Monitor
Boston teacher Dawn Czaja (l.) speaks with students participating in the Franklin Park Zoo summer learning program, which includes visits to a barn with goats and Guinea hogs.

Battling 'summer slide'

The 5th Quarter of Learning Program takes a similar approach toward granting access for its roughly 13,000 low-income students. The initiative was developed in order to combat “summer slide” – a drop in academic performance during the summer that affects all students but disproportionately impacts those whose families can’t afford educational support outside of the school year.

“What happens is [students] come back to school in September and we spend sometimes up to a month trying to remediate those skills that they’ve lost and we lose learning time for kids to be able to progress forward,” says Jan Manfredi, director of expanded learning for Boston Public Schools. 

Principals around the city select their students for particular institutions and a collaborative team of the district’s teachers and site facilitators develop lesson plans. During the program, students also receive breakfast and lunch daily – for free.

While the 5th Quarter of Learning program doesn’t yet have comprehensive data on the effect of its programs, a 2016 RAND study that informed and initiated the program has demonstrated potential. High attendance at programs like summer learning at the zoo correlates with academic gains, according to the study. The academic boost for students who regularly attend enrichment programs two summers in a row translates to between 20 and 25 percent of typical annual gains in mathematics and language arts. 

But the biggest advantage of cultural enrichment – especially for low-income students – might be cultivating a sense of home within a larger community. Summer learning that features cultural institutions can help students develop stronger tolerance and empathy, Dr. Kisida says.

“The experience of belonging to a natural or cultural or neighborhood institution is part of learning. And through the 5th Quarter we have been deliberate about exposing kids to learning environments that they might not otherwise have seen,” says Chris Smith, president and executive director at Boston After School & Beyond. “[O]ur goal is to make sure that the entire city is a classroom.”

And that sense of belonging is powerful. At the Franklin Park Zoo, students devote time every week to one continuous research project on an exhibited animal.

For Steijhude Venant, the focus was on cranes. The 10-year-old chose the birds because they remind him of the cranes at his mother’s home in Haiti, where he was born. Like many of his classmates, Steijhude has developed great love for the zoo. Someday he would like to work here.

“I would want to take care of the animals – even the lions,” he says.

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