Superintendent's Notebook: Stopping the 'summer slide'

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I’m the new superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. I officially started my job on July 1, but I visited each of the district’s schools in June to meet staff and students on the last two days of school.

Being in the district then allowed me to see the excitement that comes with the end of the school year and sense the allure of the summer: long, lazy days of fun, rest and new experiences.

Yet summer also is the time for the “summer slide.”

Almost 100 years of research have shown that learning can be lost the during the summer months if students aren’t engaged in educational activities. According to the National Education Association, “experts say much of the reading achievement gap seen in ninth-grade students nationwide can be traced back to unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years.”

A 2010 report by the Afterschool Alliance found that while 25 percent of students were participating in summer learning programs, many more would like the opportunity to do so. A full 83 percent of parents supported spending public funds on summer learning programs and 67 percent of low-income parents said their children would enroll in a summer program if they could.

Here in Portland, we take steps every summer to provide students with learning opportunities to stop the summer slide. What we offer is both fun and instructive.

The Portland Public Schools offers summer literacy and math programming for elementary school students. We also have a program for rising sixth-graders that focuses on math, literacy and easing the transition from elementary to middle school. We have a credit recovery program for high school students who need to make up a class that they were not successful in completing during the school year. Our Multilingual & Multicultural Center provides summer programming at the middle and high school levels. And our students with disabilities, K-12, participate in multiple programs.

Try as we may, however, our programs reach only a fraction of our students. That’s why it’s important to talk about other ways to keep students learning in the summer. The NEA says that a recent study showed that “giving kids 12 books to read over the summer was as effective as summer school in raising the students’ reading scores.”

With this in mind, The Portland Public Library and our schools have partnered to offer a joint eight-week reading program for elementary school students this summer. Called “Reading in Portland: Time of Wonder,” the program encourages children throughout the community to read about and explore the natural world.

The program began in June but runs through mid-August, and kids can still sign up at the library. The goal is to read or listen to at least eight books this summer. Students get a reading log/adventure map that contains suggestions for reading as well as outdoor activities that can be enjoyed by the whole family.

A variety of educational and entertaining programs also are offered at different Portland Public Library locations. Children who reach the reading goal and return their logs to the library will receive a certificate, a book, a Gelato Fiasco coupon and a free Kids’ Meal from Subway. Visit portlandlibrary.com for more details; I encourage all of our families to take advantage of Portland’s library programs.

Schools today serve many social functions. Some of our students depend on school breakfast and lunch during the school year to get adequate nutrition. Their hunger doesn’t take a break in the summer just because school is out.

That is why the Portland Public Schools and Opportunity Alliance are offering free meals this summer for all youngsters 18 and under across the city of Portland through the middle of August. With their nutritious meals, youngsters can enjoy games and other fun enrichment activities to combat the summer slide. Learn more details by calling 2-1-1 or visiting 211maine.org.

We want to ensure that our students enjoy their summers – and not slide back in their learning while doing so.

Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org.

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