One tactic to shrink achievement gap: tackle 'summer learning loss'

Sailing, marine life, and field trips are part of a program to prevent a summertime loss of reading and math skills among low-income students in Boston. Its aim is to help close the achievement gap.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Elias Priero (r.) helped instructor Kayla McLaughlin Aug. 1 during a free school program in Boston.

On a sweltering August day, student Hendrick Estrella sits on a sailboat, dragging his hand through the waves and reveling in the coolness of Boston Harbor. The day before, he had touched – and tasted – a striped bass, gathering details for a book he is writing about fish.

He is one of 35 rising fourth-graders from Boston's Harvard/Kent Elementary School who immersed themselves this summer in five weeks of salty, splashy fun while boosting their math and literacy skills.

It's all part of an innovative approach that Boston Public Schools and many nonprofit partners here are taking to prevent "summer learning loss" – the slide in math and reading skills for low-income children who lack structured opportunities.

For all the accolades that Massachusetts receives for high academic achievement, it still faces stark achievement gaps. In third-grade state reading tests, for example, fewer than 40 percent of Latino and African-American students scored at or above the proficient level in 2011, compared with nearly 70 percent of white students. Similar gaps show up in eighth-grade math.

"We are working hard in what are called our gateway cities, especially, to try to close those gaps, and the state is experimenting with many different ways of doing that," says Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Summer learning loss accounts for a sizable portion of achievement gaps, education research shows.

Mitchell Chester, the state's education commissioner, says he's put more focus on closing achievement gaps overall – for instance, by incorporating various measures of student gains in the teacher evaluation system. The state has also taken over the schools in Lawrence, a district riddled with corruption and dismal achievement.

Moreover, teachers statewide are undergoing intensive training to improve the education of English-language learners, which was deemed inadequate last year by federal civil rights officials.

Boston's Summer Learning Project serves about 1,600 students with the support of private funds, and it's being studied to see if it's a model worth replicating.

The Harvard/Kent students spent their mornings in academic activities related to marine life. In the afternoons, they split their time between sailing, hands-on science, and lessons tied to the USS Constitution, or "Old Ironsides" – the famous War of 1812 ship.

They wrote and illustrated books on a marine animal of their choosing. "They have a product they are proud of.... They see a purpose to their reading," said Maria D'Itria, a retired teacher overseeing the class.

"We get to eat fractions," the children exclaimed after third-grade teacher Linda Yip asked students to practice math by divvying up glazed donuts.

The program is about closing so-called opportunity gaps as well. With instructors from Courageous Sailing, one of the school's nonprofit partners, the children have learned a bit about tacking and jibbing – some of them realizing for the first time that the ocean is salty. They've also boosted their self-esteem, communication skills, and teamwork.

In a tent "classroom" near the docks, they've explored live lobsters and simulated an oil spill in a bowl of blue water to learn about protecting natural resources.

"Students have had successful learning experiences here," says Sara Murphy, Courageous Sailing's head instructor. "They've expressed that, 'I've never been good at learning things before'; but because it's so hands-on and so involved, they're even noticing how much better they're feeling about learning."

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