For Dorchester parent Roberto Cardoso, the pressure to find a summer camp for Lianna, his 8-year-old daughter and only child, never goes away. He’s already worried about what she’ll be doing in the summer of 2018.
“Every year it’s a struggle,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure for working parents like us to try to come up with an affordable summer plan for her.”
This summer, though, they lucked out. Lianna, an incoming fourth-grader at the Roger Clap School, is attending a free, five-week summer program at the Hale Reservation in Westwood, a place her father had always wanted to send her to but was too costly for them. This year, she is one of 2,200 Boston Public School students who were selected for the “5th Quarter of Learning,” a new component of the city’s larger summer learning project that combines academics and outdoor recreational activities.
Think of it as a hybrid between traditional summer school and camp. The program is a valuable investment in Boston kids that deserves a broader base of support so that more students can participate.
“It makes the city a classroom,” said Chris Smith, executive director of Boston After School & Beyond, a nonprofit that manages and contributes funds to the new initiative. In addition to Hale Reservation, other sites include the New England Aquarium and Thompson Island. “Kids will be experiencing boating, archery, entrepreneurship programs, etc. It’s the experiential aspect of it that engages them in learning,” Smith said.
The summer months are a key factor in the state’s stubborn educational achievement gaps. Parents with incomes in the top 10 percent spend more than $6,500 annually on out-of-school learning for their kids, according to Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard. In contrast, low-income families spend a ninth of that. Many of those kids end up experiencing the so-called summer slide, falling behind and losing the hard-earned lessons and skills acquired during the school year. Some estimates say that low-income students can lose between two and three months of reading skills while their more affluent peers make small gains. And the summer learning losses add up: By fifth grade, low-income kids can fall between 2½ and 3 years behind; by ninth grade, the lack of access to summer programming accounts for over half of the achievement gap.
That’s why Mayor Marty Walsh has pushed for more summer learning opportunities in Boston — and to make them affordable for parents like Cardoso. The success has been remarkable: In 2015, the city had capacity for only 6,500 students; this summer, the city has a total of over 12,000 kids enrolled in more than 100 fully or partially subsidized summer programs. The offerings include theater, dance, and poetry for students from grades 4 to 11; an enrichment academy for English-as-a-second-language students for five weeks; and a 10-week camp for swimmers.
The Boston summer learning model, which is paid for with a combination of public and private funds, is worthy of replication. The good news is that there is pending state legislation, sponsored by Representative Alice Peisch, that would do just that — increase access to quality summer learning opportunities in districts with high concentrations of low-income students. The bill is now in the House Ways and Means Committee.
For now, the Boston program deserves to attract more private funding. Rewarding summer experiences shouldn’t be reserved for wealthy families alone.