opportunity gap

Helping English-Language Learners Avoid the Summer Slide

Growing up in Denver, my mother made me attend a summer reading program at a public library every year. And every year I endured being made fun of by my classmates who didn’t understand why I had to be in the library instead of at the park with them. It turns out, my mother did me a favor by enrolling me into that program. She helped me to avoid the “ summer slide,” or the loss of academic skills over summer vacation, that affects millions of children nationwide. Low-income children go down the summer slide especially hard. One teacher in Portland noticed this and decided to do something about it. In 2011, Tim Schulze was teaching in a neighboring district as a long-term substitute when he started to pay attention to the summer slide that some of his students experienced. When Schulze later got a job at Harrison Park, he saw the same problem—some students returned to school behind where they had been in the spring and lost the progress they made in developing their English-language skills. Schulze decided to take matters into his own hands by recruiting fellow educators to open PDX Summer School to provide support for English-language students from Harrison Park School. I recently visited Harrison Park to talk to Tim Schulze about his work. It was a delightful experience to take a walk around the school and hear a melodious mix of languages being shouted across the playground and see all manner of cultural dress worn by its students. Harrison Park is a low-income school with 87 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Half of its students are English learners who speak approximately 25 different languages, and 76 percent of students are children of color. Walking through the playground after school let out sent me back to the school in Denver I attended where I had friends named Felipé and Guillermo. Schulze’s team works with students in kindergarten through fifth grade on their math, reading and English language development for a month during the summer break. A typical day for them is very similar to a day during the school year, just with fewer students around. They are in single grade classrooms with usually no more than 13 other students (about 65 students attend the PDX Summer School—more students would like to attend, but the program doesn’t have enough resources for additional teachers.) Its results are promising. The team did an evaluation of its program last summer and students are making gains in reading and math. Although results vary with some children seeing only modest improvement, none of these children are losing ground. Not only are students avoiding the summer slide, they’re excited to be with their friends who they don’t typically see outside of the school day, often because they come from very different cultural backgrounds and live in separate neighborhoods. Students who attend the PDX Summer School all showed gains in student achievement (math and reading were assessed), and many of these gains were statistically significant. The summer school program is benefiting student learning. Unfortunately, despite its academic success and positive public sentiment, PDX struggles to find operational funding year to year. Unlike programs operating in wealthier parts of Portland, Schulze’s program relies on small donations to meet its needs each year. Portland Public Schools could help by rolling the program into its budgets, but has chosen to not yet prioritize the growing needs of its Eastside schools. Tim Schulze and his team are doing important work; they’re helping students who are most at risk of falling behind get the support they need to be successful during the school year. The summer slide doesn’t have to be inevitable.
Iris Maria Chávez
Iris Maria Chávez is an education advocate and communications consultant, currently working with national and Oregon focused organizations to advance equity by supporting the creation of just policies, engaging with communities and supporting communications efforts that better communities in Oregon and across the nation. Iris Maria has lived in Portland for just over a year and came to the ...

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