A Message to Summer-Learning Providers: Make Equity a Priority

Staff Writer

Summer learning program providers need to rethink their approaches and do more to reach out to low-income families and communities of color trying to recover from the pandemic.

So recommends a recent report by the Afterschool Alliance, an advocacy organization for out-of-school programs, which found that students in families with low incomes were 13 percent less likely to take part in a summer program than their higher-earning peers.

“Parents in higher-income families spend five times as much on summer programs for their children, and are three times as likely to have a child in a summer program than parents in low-income families,” Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant said during a briefing Wednesday highlighting the report.

The organization’s report was based on a survey of nearly 30,000 households, conducted between January and March 2020.

It touts new opportunities for summer program providers to ramp up messaging efforts about the services they provide, especially among lower-income families. Twenty-three percent of families surveyed in that demographic said they don’t know what summer programs are available for their children.

Moreover, the report underscores big differences by race and ethnicity in families’ attitudes toward summer programs.

Summer learning programs, which districts have long relied on to help students who have fallen behind academically, have come into new focus as school systems look for new strategies to combat perceived “learning loss” that occurred during COVID.

African-American, Hispanic, and Native American families were more likely than white and Asian-American families to say it was “extremely important” that summer programs build life skills, offer a diverse mix of activities, have physical exercise opportunities, and supply STEM learning opportunities.

Seventy-six percent of surveyed African-American parents, 75 percent of Native American parents, 65 percent of Hispanic parents, 60 percent of white parents, and 54 percent of Asian-American parents signaled opportunities to build life skills as a major driver in their choice of a summer program.

Sixty-nine percent of African-American families said that have a variety of activities in summer learning is important, as did 68 percent of Native American families, 64 percent of Hispanic families, 53 percent of white families, and 51 percent of Asian-American families.

When it comes to having physical activities in summer programs, 68 percent of African-Americans said it was extremely important, as well as 66 percent of Native American families, 65 percent of Hispanic families, 58 percent of white families, and 53 percent of Asian-American families selecting that option as extremely important in their summer program decisions.

There wide gaps between how African-American and white parents perceived STEM learning opportunities. Fifty-seven percent of African-American parents thought this was extremely important in their summer program decision, while just 35 percent of white parents thought the same.

A New Vision for Summer Programs

To better serve all students, including those from communities of color and low-income families, summer program proponents recommend that providers take the following steps:

  • Be mindful of the terminology you use in your programming. A manager for a Dallas-based out-of-school program provider said during the briefing about the report that his company is being mindful of incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as social-emotional learning concepts into the language it uses in its programs. Sergio Garcia, senior manager of learning systems for Big Thought, said he is actively seeking to collaborate with nonprofit organizations led by people of color to inspire youth participating in summer programs to recognize their ability to succeed. Big Thought is also working on “shifting the language to positive asset-based,” Garcia said. “So, not using words like ‘marginalized,’ but using words like ‘opportunity.’”
  • Don’t cram everything into this summer. Recovery from learning loss should be looked at as a more long-term than immediate goal for the education community, said RAND senior policy researcher Jennifer McCombs, another speaker at the briefing. The goal should be to retain learning over time, and it’s OK to plot out learning recovery plans over this summer, next school year, and the following summer, she said. “Slamming kids with eight hours of reading instruction each day is unlikely to be particularly effective or particularly engaging for [students], and can cause burnout and more harm than good,” McCombs said.
  • Stimulus triggers new partnership opportunities. The American Rescue Plan, enacted in March, provides about $122 billion for K-12, 1 percent (or $1.2 billion total) of which must be provided for summer enrichment programs across the U.S. The large infusion from the federal stimulus can lead to new partnerships between communities and school districts, as well as the private sector, said Gigi Antoni, director of learning and enrichment for the Wallace Foundation. Sustainable programs should help underserved students access summer programs, she said. “If we don’t think about serving kids on the margin and designing interventions that serve those kids well, we’re unlikely to serve them,” Antoni said at the briefing.
  • Be resourceful with communication tools. Garcia’s company, Big Thought, is reviving some “old-school, grassroots” communications methods to spread the word about its summer program, dropping flyers on people’s cars, and sticking posters on telephone poles, Garcia said. The company is also working with systems like Dallas Independent School District, and is trying to relieve pandemic-fatigued teachers from any perceived obligation to promote Big Thought’s programs, by sending its employees to the schools to share the company’s message directly, he said.
    • Teresa Dothard-Campbell, the Glenview Middle School site coordinator for Lights ON for Learning, a federally funded summer program in Illinois, said her program is trying to reconnect with families using every social media tool it has, as well as the ClassDojo K-12 communication platform. Program leaders are also making sure they equip teachers with as much information as possible to talk with parents about the program. The leaders of the district that includes the school wanted a major effort to reach families, and so Lights ON is partnering with new organizations to advertise this summer’s programs, Dothard-Campbell said. “We want our families to see that information at grocery stores,” she said. “We want our families to see that information in their local churches and synagogues. We want them to be able to see it if they’re just out for a stroll.”

Nine in 10 parents in the Afterschool Alliance survey reported satisfaction with summer programs that their children attended across demographic groups, including income level, race, and ethnicity.

Across any state, at least 5 in 6 parents reported peace of mind with their child’s experience, ranging from 86 percent indicating satisfaction in North Dakota and 100 percent signaling approval in Illinois.

Summer and afterschool program providers can find more example of what the Afterschool Alliance considers successful plans of action here.

Image by Getty

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