Harnessing the Power of Summer for All Students
Thursday, May 28, 2020
by: Aaron Philip Dworkin

Section: From Contributors

Aaron Philip Dworkin CEO, National Summer Learning Association

Harnessing the Power of Summer for All Students

Summer is on the horizon, and I never thought I would see a time when the world practically stood still. The COVID-19 health crisis has upended our lives in ways we could never imagine and unearthed deeply rooted economic, health and educational inequities in our nation.

Summer is on the horizon, and I never thought I would see a time when the world practically stood still. The COVID-19 health crisis has upended our lives in ways we could never imagine and unearthed deeply rooted economic, health and educational inequities in our nation. Behind the infographics, heat maps and spiking graphs tracking the silent path of this virus is a collective responsibility to protect, support and care for all our children — particularly the most vulnerable in our communities. Without a doubt, this pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide, food and financial instability, childcare issues and learning losses millions of underserved students and their families actually face every summer. 


While many continue to debate the extent of summer learning loss (or summer slide) in modern times, decades of research confirm that low income students fall behind their wealthier peers during the summer months. NWEA’s most recent student learning report, “The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures,” projects that, with the COVID-19 slide and summer slide, students may return in fall 2020 with roughly 70 percent of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, less than 50 percent of the learning gains in math, and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.


As our nation’s leaders look to respond, the recently passed COVID-19 CARES Act includes a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund and represents a positive step forward. It recommends specifically that school districts plan and implement “activities related to summer learning” and allows a portion of the $13.5 billion allocation for K–12 education support to be used for this purpose. Although a small win, this relief funding is woefully inadequate to meet the learning needs of students from low income backgrounds, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness or foster care and students who are engaged in the juvenile justice system.


While we cannot predict the length of this nationwide crisis of extended school closures, this is the time for education and policy leaders to think through how to leverage funding and the expertise in the out of school (OST) community to keep kids nourished, safe and learning this summer season and beyond. School districts cannot and should not do this work alone. During this crisis, many schools and families have quickly turned to remote learning to mitigate existing educational gaps. Yet, digital divide issues remain a major hurdle and remote learning is hardly a substitute for the power of a caring teacher-student relationship. So where does this all lead us?  


Just as we now see car companies rolling out ventilators, whiskey distilleries making hand sanitizer and apparel companies zipping out personal protective equipment, now is the time to reimagine learning for our students. That’s why we see school districts like Dallas designing virtual field trips and activity backpacks for students; NSLA’s award-winning summer program, Engaging Creative Minds (ECM), cataloging and sharing a robust library of standards-aligned summer STEAM activities for teachers in South Carolina; major sports leagues offering remote activities to ensure kids stay active; companies like LinkedIn Learning connecting students in Charlotte with essential career-building skills for the summer; and Khan Academy offering a trusted platform for students to learn almost anything and for teachers to differentiate their instruction. 


It’s my belief that social entrepreneurs in education are often drawn to summer and OST programs because of their innate ability to awaken young people’s passions, grow their resiliency and foster learning in ways often fettered by the school year. In the words of NSLA’s founder Matthew Boulay, PhD, “Summer learning is not summer school. In fact, the most successful summer experiences often feel as different from formal schooling as possible. They provide the freedom for students to explore new ideas, new interests and new activities in ways that can be difficult to do during the constraints of regular schooling.”


NSLA’s New Vision for Summer School Network (NVSS) of school districts was born out of this very notion and a commitment to a broad vision for summer learning — one that engages more children and youth, boosts academic achievement and influences teaching and learning throughout the year. While every day brings a new wrinkle in this crisis and different scenarios for schools to consider, NSLA’s network of 50 school districts works toward a vision to include summer learning and enrichment as part of a 12-month plan for learning. It aims to increase and enhance the scope of traditional summer school by moving beyond remediation, credit recovery and test preparation through an integrated, project-based approach to learning that fosters 21st century skills. In elevating summer as essential to education improvement efforts, the new RAND report, supported by The Wallace Foundation, sheds new light on how district, city, state and federal policies support and constrain the scale, sustainability and quality of school district-provided summer learning programs. 


So what will summer hold for young people across the country? Your guess is as good as mine, as the decisions to open in-person summer programs will be driven by CDC guidelines with many summer programs planning for both in-person or virtual experiences as well as opportunities to ensure summer meal distribution. Whatever the experiences we create this summer for our young people may be, we believe that: quality matters and is well defined in the OST community; building authentic family relationships must be a priority; and student voice and choice in learning foster a foundation for trust, self-confidence and student growth.


Since this crisis, I have spent countless hours listening, learning and loving the spirit of adaptability, resilience and hope emerging from the summer and OST community. Eleven months ago, I joined NSLA as CEO for these very reasons. And even in the midst of a global pandemic, I believe summer is a time for: 

  1. Innovation: An opportunity for school districts, community partners, municipal leaders and OST providers to improve school year teaching and learning by testing new curricula, technology and instructional strategies (especially in virtual environments) before scaling.

  2. Inspiration: Learning happens anywhere, anytime and offers a chance to individualize learning and to explore project-based experiences that help students acquire deeper knowledge of themselves and the world around them.   

  3. Integration: An opportunity to break down systemic and community silos to create a true safety net that equitably supports the academic, social-emotional and well-being needs of every learner. 

  4. Impact: Recent research from the National Academies of Sciences report on Summertime Experiences and the RAND Corporation report of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offer conclusive evidence that summer is an opportunity to close academic gaps while promoting healthy development and well-being for students to thrive. 


The educational impact of this crisis will be felt for a long time to come, which is why NSLA has formed a national summer and continuous learning task force of cross-sector partners with unique strengths and expertise to share guidance, resources, trainings and lessons emerging from across the country. We have also launched a Voices of Summer Webinar Series based on the most pressing issues at this moment for the education and OST community.


This is a defining moment in our country and there is an important evolution in the summer and OST field taking place. In order to really address student success, we need to expand the conversation about the power of summer and OST, rethink the traditional notion of summer school and create a shared vision across the community to support the whole child year-round. 

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