State House News: Urban Summer School Bill Pitched to Help Close Achievement Gap

By Matt Murphy | MARCH 17, 2017

Summer school is often thought of as a punishment. But what if it didn’t have to be?

As state education officials look for ways to shrink the achievement gap for poorer students and prepare them for college and the workforce, Rep. Alice Peisch, of Wellesley, is pushing a new model for summer school in urban districts that would take students out of the classroom and into the real world.

Peisch, who co-chairs the Committee on Education, has filed legislation with 18 cosponsors that would direct the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to set up a grant program to support summer learning in districts with high concentrations of low-income students.

The programs seeded through the grant program would have to offer at least 150 hours of programming, including academic, college and career readiness skills, and work with local district and community employers, non-profits and private funders to enhance the experience.

Peisch said experiences that middle-class families take for granted – like vacations or excursions to the beach – expose children to new vocabularies that low-income families can’t provide. This puts low-income students at an immediate learning disadvantage before accounting for what educators call the “summer slide” when skills and lessons are forgotten.

“I’m not saying this program alone will close the achievement gap, but it’s one of several steps we need to take,” she said Thursday at a briefing for lawmakers at the State House.

The idea is based on the success of programs in cities like Boston, where in 2010 city officials launched the Boston Summer Learning Community with the help of Boston After School & Beyond. In 2016, more than 10,000 students participated in 127 different voluntary programs, up from 5,626 a year earlier.

Other cities, including Worcester, Salem and New Bedford, are already working with community partners to develop similar programs that take advantage of parks, the New Bedford Whaling Museum and other institutions for learning opportunities.

“It’s been our lifeline,” said Jeremiah Burke High School Headmaster Lindsa McIntyre. “If we are not combining the cognitive understanding with socio-economic realities, we are missing the boat.”

McIntyre said she arrived at Jeremiah Burke when the school was labeled “underperforming,” and students she saw who could have benefited from summer school had no interest in spending their summer months in a classroom.

The students, however, changed their tune, McIntyre said, when she was able to offer summer programming that got them out of the school and into the community where they not only got tutoring but also learned “soft skills,” such as how to meet someone in a business environment.

Dario Alves, a senior at McIntyre’s high school, spent last summer working with middle school students in Mattapan helping them to publish a book. There were also math classes, social outings and discussions about current events impacting their neighborhoods. He had to be at work at 8 a.m. and get himself to off-site locations for meetings and events on his own, not unlike being on a college campus.

Alves and his classmate and summer colleague Yuran Teixeira said they both learned time management, responsibility and patience. Both plan to take part in another program at State Street bank this summer.

“Something will always work out if there is self-motivation and friendly words from loved ones,” Alves said.

State Street is one of the biggest partners with Boston After School & Beyond, but executive director Chris Smith said they also work with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Boston Bar Association and other private partners.

Research conducted by the Rand Corp. of third graders who enrolled in summer programs in Boston, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Rochester, N.Y. and Duval County, Fla. found students with a high attendance rate showed significant learning progress compared to their peers when they returned to school in the fall.

High attenders after a second summer, according to the report, showed academic gains of between 20 and 25 percent of typical gains in math and language arts their next school year.

Smith said the cost is roughly $1,500 a student for the summer in Boston, and he predicted some more suburban programs may need to use grants to solve student transportation challenges. District summer school budgets and fundraising from private entities and non-profits could also help offset cost to the state, he said.

Peisch said the bill got reported favorably out the Education Committee last session, and she hopes for that to happen even sooner this session so that it has a better chance of becoming law. She also plans to push for a budget appropriation when the House takes up its annual budget proposal in April.

“This just makes so much common sense,” Peisch said.

The link to the original State House News story can be found here.