Summer—A Time for Learning: Five Lessons From School Districts and Their Partners About Running Successful Programs

A Wallace Perspective offers lessons—and plenty of tips—for school districts and partner organizations on planning and running effective summer learning programs.​​

“Active learning, new and exciting experiences, warm and supportive relationships: This is what summer can look like when cities and school districts think outside the box of traditional summer school.”

So begins this Wallace Perspective, which delves into what makes for a high-quality, voluntary summer learning program, one that provides children from disadvantaged communities with engaging academics as well as stimulating enrichment activities during the interval between the end of the school year and back-to-school time. Interest in these programs has grown in recent years, as educators and policymakers look for ways to close both the achievement and opportunity gaps between lower- and higher-income children.
The Perspective summarizes takeaways from the National Summer Learning Project, a multi-year Wallace initiative to support the summer learning efforts of five school districts and their partner organizations—Boston; Dallas; Duval County (Jacksonville), Fla.; Pittsburgh; and Rochester, N.Y. It draws on insights from a wide-ranging, multi-volume study of the initiative by the RAND Corporation, as well as interviews with the summer organizers and participants themselves, from district administrators and out-of-school-time providers to teachers, parents and children.
The report highlights five key lessons for those interested in introducing or enhancing summer learning programs managed by districts and their community partners:
  •  Early planning for programming is crucial.
  • Successful programs focus on quality and what’s special about summer.
  • Enrolling children in voluntary programs requires intensive recruiting.
  •  Summer learning can and should be part of a school district’s year-round operations.
  •  There are opportunities to build lasting support for summer learning.

The Perspective details the characteristics of a high-quality program, including staffing by teachers who are well-trained for the unique challenges of summer academics and enrichment instructors who are adept at classroom management. It also emphasizes that ample time is an essential ingredient of sound summer programs. A full day of academics and enrichment five days a week for five to six weeks—with at least three hours devoted to math and English Language Arts instruction—is one recommended practice. Another is for program organizers to find ways to make sure the children keep returning; the RAND study found a correlation between frequent attendance at the programs and benefits for students in reading and math.

When everything comes together, the results can get high praise, even from the toughest critics. Just ask rising seventh-grader Alejandra, a participant in Pittsburgh’s Summer Dreamers Academy effort. “I walked in expecting it to be boring,” she says, “but I’m having a lot of fun.”

Read the Full Report

Big Thought and Dallas ISD, along with four other urban public-private partnerships, participated in a multi-year research study funded by the Wallace Foundation to develop and implement summer learning programs to help close the opportunity gap. This initiative, referred to as the National Summer Learning Project (NSLP), lead to a series of comprehensive reports and strategy tools that are helping communities throughout the country increase the access, dosage and quality of their summer learning opportunities.