'Summer Slide'

Low-income students stand to lose more with summer learning loss

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Amanda Zhou, 10, lists characteristics about herself during a self-awareness lesson at the Shelby County Summer Leadership Camp in Memphis.

A typical summer day for 10-year-old Amanda Zhou is spent watching television, especially the show “Dance Moms.”

During June, however, Amanda becomes a budding engineer. As one of 200 participants in the Shelby County Summer Leadership Camp, she’s building solar-powered robots, learning leadership skills and making new friends.

The Memphis camp, serving mostly low-income students in grades 5-8, provides fun hands-on activities focused on science, technology, engineering and math, while also incorporating reading and writing into daily leadership classes.

While all students can fall behind academically during the summer break from school, students from low-income families are affected disproportionately.

According to the National Summer Learning Association, low-income students lose two to three months in reading achievement over the summer, while their higher-income peers tend to make slight gains. Additionally, most students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math skills during the summer. By the fifth grade, cumulative years of summer learning loss can leave low-income students up to three years behind their peers. And more than half of the achievement gap accumulated by ninth grade is attributed to summer learning loss.

Summer programs such as the Leadership Camp are working to reverse such trends, in tandem with efforts by Shelby County Schools to lift lagging student test scores. However, declining revenues have forced the district to decrease this year’s summer school budget by 35 percent, and expiring grants are threatening the existence of some summer programs altogether.

In Memphis and Shelby County, where economically disadvantaged students comprise 69 percent of the district, summer learning loss becomes a foundational challenge for both students and teachers as the new school year begins. Most students lose ground in math and reading.

Madison Guy, 14, experiments with a robot that she helped to build at the Shelby County Summer Leadership Camp.
Madison Guy, 14, experiments with a robot that she helped to build (photo by Caroline Bauman).

Nikki Wilks, an English teacher at Kingsbury High School, deals with the repercussions every fall.

“It’s really obvious when a student goes from reading every day during the school year to nothing at all for months,” Wilks said. “It’s frustrating for teachers because we spend weeks remediating, and it’s devastating for some of our kids who drop even further behind their peers.”

Wilks sees evidence of “summer slide” in her students’ ACT scores, which typically have been lower in the fall than in the previous spring.

Research spanning across a century shows that students generally score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer break than at the end of a school year, according to a 2007 article published in the American Sociological Review.

Matt Campbell, a former Soulsville Charter School teacher, said an easy way to understand summer learning loss is through the “faucet theory.”

“When schools close for the summer, it’s like turning off a faucet that’s been providing a steady stream of water,” Campbell said. “Students whose parents can take them to museums or pay for camps can supplement that. Lower income students are just dry for two months.”

While few would disagree with the faucet theory, Campbell said society isn’t very serious about summer slide due to a nostalgic view of summer as a time of picnics in the park and trips to the beach. Even so, many children don’t live in safe neighborhoods where they can go outside and explore or have the opportunity to travel, leaving them to sit passively in front of a computer screen or TV.

“The question isn’t, ‘Does summer learning loss exists?’ The question is, ‘What do we do about it?’” said Campbell, now an assistant director at Memphis Teacher Residency. “If we’re going to get serious about stopping summer learning loss, it’s going to take a village.”

In cities like Memphis, the critical need for effective summer learning programs is conflicting with shrinking resources as school budgets are cut and federal and philanthropic grants are increasingly tapped.

June 19 is
National Summer Learning Day

For instance, the popular Summer Leadership Camp is funded by the federal Race to the Top grant, but that money dries up this summer. Now in its fifth year, the camp could expand its reach to a waiting list of children, but instead may shut down after this summer, said camp principal Michael Demster.

“We’ve got more than 200 kids here who are learning to love learning, but how many are at home right now?” Demster asked. “How many are plopped in front of a screen all summer, completely unengaged?”

A desire for more summer learning programs is documented among families. Nineteen percent of Tennesseans reported that their children took part in a summer learning program in the summer of 2009, while 56 said they were interested in their kids attending one, according to a 2010 report by the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance.

About 85 percent of Tennessee parents said they support public funding for summer learning programs, 3 percent higher than the national average, the report says.

While some parents have reached out Demster to ask if they can help with funding to keep the camp alive, he worries that charging a price would make the program inaccessible for students who could most benefit.

The average weekly cost of a summer program nationwide is $250 per student, which equates to nearly one-third of a weekly salary for a single parent earning the median income. Shelby County Schools provides summer school and programs at no cost to families, while other summer programs, such as at the YMCA or Boys and Girls Clubs, are offered throughout Memphis — but at a cost.

Matthew Hill, 14, tries to get his robot to pick up the most water bottles during a competition  at the Shelby County Summer Leadership Camp.
Camp participant Matthew Hill, 14, navigates his robot to pick up water bottles (photo by Caroline Bauman).

Because summer learning loss is a significant academic issue for Shelby County Schools, Demster hopes district officials and philanthropists identify summer learning programs as a good investment.

“We need more camps like this in Memphis, not less,” he said. “This is a need we as a community have to put at the top of our priority list.”

Fourteen-year-old Matthew Hill agrees. While working on a robot project during his second year at leadership camp, he said the program is his favorite part of summer, even more than football practice.

“Summer camp is so much different than school, but it’s funny, because you still learn so much,” Matthew said. “I know a lot of kids who don’t get to do anything like this. I know I’m lucky, because school isn’t as hard when it starts.”

Parent resources for combating summer slide at home can be found on the National Learning Association website.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.