A student at South Wayne Elementary School works on his handwriting skills during class. Local agencies are hard at work to make him and his classmates not only maintain, but gain learning during the upcoming summer months.

“No more pencils, no more books,” is the goal for a lot of kids on summer break. For teachers, it’s a worrisome adage as they see many of their students return to school in the fall having lost some of the academic progress made during the previous school year.

Summer learning loss, or the “summer slide,” occurs when some students leave for the summer, but don’t have the same structure or educational opportunities available to them at home.

“They’re not in their normal routine of engaging in that reading and writing they’re doing every day, that critical thinking they engage in every day,” Jennifer Mable, director of curriculum assessment and instruction for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said. “They spend a lot more time playing outside or playing video games. That keeps brain cells going, but if you’re not in conversation with another friend or parent to keep questioning and thinking through things, they can fall behind.”

This loss of mastery during the summer months is not entirely based on a student’s abilities, but actually has a lot to do with circumstances out of their control, such as economic status or race.

“Summer learning loss affects student with a lower socioeconomic status to a greater degree than students with a higher socioeconomic status,” Isabel Nunez, director of Purdue Fort Wayne’s School of Education, said. “In less advantaged communities, children may not be in organized school-type programs (or) doing educational summer camps. Interestingly, in wealthier communities, students have summer learning gain, and this is because they might be … doing activities or camps that are educational or traveling.”

Nonetheless, the students are the ones who pay the price when class in back in session and they find themselves struggling to recall and develop further skills in math or reading. This slide backward, if left unchecked, can even prevent a student from graduating high school later on, which has its own economic repercussions.

“Because it is cumulative with every summer that summer learning loss occurs, and students need to come back and work to catch up, that’s eventually turning into months and months of school that could be spent jumping into new material,” Nunez said. “It’s a consistent and aggregating loss and it’s a big contributing factor to the achievement gap that would manifest in graduation rates and overall academic success.”

Learning loss is very much a concern in northeast Indiana, where both inner-city environments like Fort Wayne, and rural areas like Wabash and LaGrange counties see higher rates of poverty, making it tough to connect children with summer education.

“We live in a community that does not have tons of options for summer enrichment,” Stacey Fry, director of youth development for the Wabash County YMCA, said. “About 20% of children in Wabash County live in what is considered poverty level-income homes and some of the programs offered in the community have a cost associated with them.”

Nonprofits, schools and libraries have stepped up and into those disadvantaged communities equipped with books and summer camps that come at no cost to the students who need it most. The majority of public libraries have summer reading programs encouraging families to read throughout the summer, often in pursuit of points or prizes, and ultimately a love of learning.

Many YMCA branches, including Wabash County, host SPARK camps for elementary students that feature extra math and English practice, paired with active and enriching experiences to make sure kids don’t miss out on summer fun.

Summer learning loss shouldn’t be an issue reserved solely for schools and education-based nonprofits. Businesses should also take a vested interest in how their future workforce is learning and retaining knowledge, Fry said.

“Businesses can look for local opportunities to support agencies working with children in the summer,” Fry said. “If businesses are able to host students for field trips about a specific industry, invite local youth-serving organizations. If businesses are able to financially support these agencies, find an agency that fits the passion of the business.”

Fry also added that child care is severely lacking in northeast Indiana, especially in rural areas, so businesses could help pay it forward by being flexible with employee schedules to help parents provide educational and enriching opportunities for their kids.

Success in doing so, Nunez explained, can set off a chain reaction that will give businesses and the entire community a solid return of investment. A more educated and supported community, especially minority communities that are often disproportionately impacted by learning loss, means a more diverse pool of talent and quality of life for employers and their employees.

“The more Burmese-speaking and Spanish-speaking students, the more African American students that go to school and do well, the more that choose to spend their 20s and raise a family in Fort Wayne,” Nunez said.

With the median age of many counties in northeast Indiana creeping upward and birth rates ticking downward, appealing to younger professionals will be the key to invigorating local economic growth.

“In order for the goals and visions of 2020 to be realized,” Nunez said. “It’s not just the white middle-class population we need to be listening to … Programs that address summer learning loss can lift up diverse communities and enrich the cultural diversity of the city as a whole. Then, the more culturally rich city we have, the more Fort Wayne then becomes a magnet for young professionals.”

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