School’s out, temperatures are rising, and, for many students across the country, the summer slide has begun. Each summer, low-income students lose two to three months of reading skills and two months of math skills. As the center director for an after school and summer academic program for middle school students in Washington, D.C.’s historically underserved neighborhood of Anacostia, I see these statistics firsthand every day.
Many of the students from the community we serve take one of three paths in the summer. In some of our better case scenarios, students are either required to enroll in remedial classes to move onto the next grade or they sign up for recreational programs that do not have an academic component. At worst, students stay at home where they either watch TV, play video games, or spend hours on the computer. For many of the students in these categories, the only interaction they have with math is getting change from a store clerk when purchasing snacks. Their reading interactions are limited to social media posts – nothing that requires critical thinking skills.
The program that I work for, Higher Achievement, offers an alternative for students: a no-cost, six-week Summer Academy that includes experiential learning field trips (including a mock trial, a visit to the National Gallery of Art, a ropes course, and a tour of a local hospital), electives (such as theatre, rap, poetry, and hip-hop dance), college visits, and – importantly – classes with curriculum aligned for the year ahead, not the year behind. During the school year, learning is a high stakes game. Students prep for tests and focus on their grades. But for me and the teachers that I work with at Higher Achievement, summer is about getting ahead of the curve. The key is creating a safe space where students can take risks. Ask a question. Participate in an unfamiliar activity. We remind our students that they aren’t being tested or graded, so now is the time to bring back the joy of learning. Once the school year begins again, Higher Achievement continues to support students with mentoring, homework help, electives, and public speaking platforms.
The benefits of this environment are many. Take for example my student Muneerah, who is a rising sixth grader. Muneerah started the summer as a very reserved, quiet student who was very selective in what she shared. But through our spoken word poetry elective, she has discovered her voice. Now she is writing poems and participating in what we call “Community Meeting,” a daily gathering where students are able to talk about the things they care about. Topics this summer have ranged from bullying, to individual identity, to items in the news, to how to navigate middle school.
Students like Muneerah don’t just want these sort of summer opportunities, they deserve them. By using these quiet months in the summer as an opportunity to grow and challenge our students in a risk-free environment, we can make sure that the school year ahead is productive, interactive, and inspiring.
Tawana Bostic is a Center Director at Higher Achievement’s Ward 8 Achievement Center in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Higher Achievement, she was a science teacher at Bronx Park Middle School in New York City and a Mentoring Program Coordinator at Pipps Neighborhood, an organization that helps low income communities in NYC rise above poverty.