Smart Partnerships Help Underfunded Schools Offer Year-Round Learning Opportunities

Community partnerships in Pittsburgh create meaningful experiences for students and help prevent learning loss over summer months.

We’ve written a lot about summer learning and ways to circumvent the summer slide, which has been shown to disproportionately affect low-income students. However, as school districts begin to overhaul their summer school programs and to think about learning as a process that happens year-round—not just for 185 days—they should turn to community partnerships to strengthen their efforts and sidestep common hurdles.

“A strong body of research tells us that summer learning loss significantly affects a student’s success,” said Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “Districts need to start thinking about the whole year for a student, and that summer is part of what we do and part of what we address—not just a luxury if the district has extra money,” he said.

Yet far too often school districts face significant hurdles when designing and running meaningful summer programs. Costs, staffing, and coordination are just a few.

Cost is one of the first things teachers and school administrations think of when the topic of summer programming arises. As a recent study from RAND finds, cost is the main barrier to implementing summer learning programs for lower-income districts, and many districts have discontinued such programs in response to budget cuts.

Funding, however, is not the only variable.

The RAND report explains that ongoing challenges to maintaining a summer learning program include a lack of air conditioning or other building constraints, and low or uncertain enrollment, not to mention a lack of unified vision for the summer program. The report is based on interviews with city and district representatives, summer learning staff, and external partners from five urban districts’ full-day summer programs for disadvantaged elementary students.

Jennifer Sloan McCombs, one of the authors of the RAND report, talked about the findings and summer learning programs in a recent interview with Education Week writer Nora Fleming. “The challenge [districts face] is making seamless connections between academics and enrichment,” she added. “It takes a lot of planning; it doesn’t happen by magic.”

More specifically, the report demonstrated that partnerships between districts and community-based organizations—like collaborations between schools, universities, and businesses in Pittsburgh—add benefits and lower costs. Educators in Pittsburgh know firsthand that magic doesn’t happen without smart planning, and the Kids+Creativity Network is designed to help solve that problem. The Network is an organizing body that helps forge partnerships across many of the youth-serving organizations in the city, and ensures that those partnerships don’t wither for lack of strategic stewardship.

Partnerships can also bring needed resources and more coordinated options for kids to continue learning. In Pittsburgh, for example, the city’s Hive Network is working with local libraries, museums, and other organizations dedicated to channeling young people’s energy and enthusiasm during their time out of school to host the Hive Days of Summer. “When schools close their doors for summer, Hive Pittsburgh will be there to ensure the continuity of learning,” said organizers.

Some of the Hive Days of Summer events include workshops on printmaking and music production, while others rely on a specific partnership. For example, for one of these collaborations, Digital Salad, a chef, a farmer, and an artist joined forces. The project combines art making, technology, and farm education to produce “interactive and edible” learning experiences for classrooms, community spaces, and neighborhoods.

Events vary in time, price, and commitment too. Students have the option of attending free open studio workshops or something more specialized, like a week-long camp for young girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) led by successful female professionals in those fields.

Partnerships like these can be a model for others hoping to expand learning opportunities to children year-round. As McCombs said, “One of the keys is not to tack on artificial academic activities to enrichment, but provide authentic opportunities that integrate both,” a process that is currently underway in Pittsburgh, and in other cities across the country.

In a sign that people are taking these kinds of partnerships and summer learning seriously, the Wallace Foundation committed $50 million to study summer schooling in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, FL, and several other cities, according to a recent story in the New York Times.

And RAND researchers have launched a high-quality study with 5,700 students entering fourth grade this fall. They’ll track their standardized test performance for at least two years, as well as “soft skills” like their ability to work in teams or persist on tasks. The study will compare the summer school students with those who applied but did not get spots.

Published July 02, 2013