Battle of summer ‘brain drain’Published 11:30am Monday, July 16, 2012
Educators seek ways to make school lessons stick over summer vacation
It’s normally not acceptable to race inside Austin High School. Classrooms weren’t meant to have high-powered machines roaring through them. Yet the AHS art room last week was a haven of heavy building, racing, and exploring as elementary and middle school students learned the basics of engineering while building LEGO machines.
“This is much cooler than any other LEGO class I’ve had,” said Natalie Haynes, a soon to be fourth-grader at Banfield Elementary School.
Haynes was among 12 students who wanted to be in a classroom this summer. Those students are among the thousands nationwide that learn over summer vacation, an activity more education experts are calling for as students and test scores suffer from summer “brain drain,” the concept that students forget much of what they learn over break.
Don’t tell that to Haynes, though. She and Neveln Elementary School fifth-grader Kaleb Ree were busy Wednesday creating a forklift. Whether they knew it or not, they were learning how tension affected a machine’s ability to lift things. They struggled for several minutes trying to attach the arm of the forklift to the body by stringing it together and making a simplified pulley. Yet they couldn’t get the pulley to properly lift the forklift arm.
“It was way too loose,” Haynes told Ree, unaware the two were learning the hard way about tension in engineering.
It’s these lessons that education experts say are crucial during the summer. For more than 200 years, students have traditionally had the summer off from school in the U.S. While the break originally served to provide families extra help on the farm at growing season, summer is largely seen as a time for vacation nowadays.
Yet students on break will forget much of what they learned, according to several research reports over the years. A 2004 study by a University of Missouri-Columbia professor found many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, regressed on concepts they learned last school year over the summer. Researchers said students lost one to three months of learning concepts at worst, and were more prone to forget math concepts than reading comprehension. A similar study by Johns Hopkins researchers in 2007 found those low-income students who forgot more over the summer were also less likely to complete high school, let alone get a postsecondary degree.
Summer learning loss was one reason Sumner Elementary School switched to a year-round, 45/15 schedule last year. Austin Public Schools officials tout the switch as a way for students to retain more, which would help students get better scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment exam and better prepare Sumner students for further schooling. Preliminary test results show Sumner students remembering more of what they learn, but there won’t be definitive data on the first year-round school year until August, when the new Multiple Measurement Rating system results are released.
Yet the district doesn’t have a formalized approach to summer learning, aside from Community Education initiatives. Austin’s Community Ed program offers many classes based on student and faculty interests, along with literacy outreach programs like the AmeriCorps reading center at Ellis Middle School and AHS and a Community Ed-sponsored outreach to children at Meadows West apartments, formerly known as Bremerton Townhomes.
“Let’s keep kids busy. Let’s keep kids literate,” said Amy Baskin, Community Ed director. Baskin said the department’s summer programs aren’t based on formalized research as much as common educational views, like how getting students more access to reading and learning will help them do better in school.
“Really, the research is that literacy is a foundation that people need,” she said.
That’s why the district offers courses in everything from outdoor science to horseback riding and art, along with scholarships for low-income families. What’s more, low-income families can get a little reading in when they get lunch at Ellis or AHS as part of the district’s summer lunch program.
AmeriCorps volunteers are running Summer Reading Centers at AHS and Ellis on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. This program lets children take books home to read and enjoy. The idea is to encourage youth to read over the summer. At the AHS reading center alone, volunteers go through more than 200 books a day, according to Gretchen Erickson, AmeriCorps volunteer.
“Students who choose to read books at their level throughout the summer will maintain their reading ability or even improve their reading skills,” she said.
Volunteers don’t appear worried about getting books back, however. While the Reading Centers need every book it can get, students aren’t penalized if they misplace one.
“We don’t know which comes first, but we know that there’s a correlation between the number of books in a home and literacy rates,” said Ann Hokanson, executive director of the Austin Public Library.
The library is doing its own work for area students, once again hosting a summer reading program. Books from the Summer Reading Center count in the library’s reading program, and students can sign up for the library program at the Ellis and AHS reading centers.
With so many opportunities, students are excited to find out new things in novel ways. Take Haynes and Ree, for example. They didn’t realize they would learn so much about gears and motors this summer.
“I didn’t expect to learn that much at all,” Ree said. Ree likes taking classes like Vehicle Engineering, as he said he usually does something like this during summer break.
Ree and Haynes eventually got their forklift to work, as they were one of the first groups to finish their vehicle Wednesday. The secret? They created a crank for the pulley with the help of teacher Andrew Hanson and a suggestion from a fellow student.
“I came up with that!” Sacred Heart School fourth-grader Logan Mathews told Hanson, a big smile on his face.
—Camille Anderson contributed to this report.