RENAISSANCE WOMAN: Lisa Schmidt, founding director of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program, leads a seven-week arts learning course for juvenile offenders like Octavia, a young mother who credits the program with her high school degree.

Why Summer Learning Matters

When school's out, the work really begins.

Life was always tough for Octavia, but summers were the toughest. The Carter High School student was a teen mother by her freshman year. She was also a co-caregiver for her sister, who was born two weeks after her daughter. But at least the school year gave structure to her days. The summers were different. “I was just running the streets,” she says.

Octavia’s life changed forever in 2009. That summer, 14-year-old Octavia got into an argument with her mother about all that running around. The argument escalated into a physical altercation, and her mother called the police. Octavia was arrested and turned over to the Dallas County Juvenile Department. 

What really altered her life, though, was the county’s recommendation that Octavia enter a program called Creative Solutions, a job-training program for teens on probation or recently off. The job: making art. The program may sound touchy-feely, but it works for dozens of kids every summer who learn to use the daily struggles of poverty as fodder for their art, everything from painting to poetry to musical theater.

It didn’t transform Octavia overnight. The first few days, she says, she remained angry and distant. But soon she came around. “I found friends, mentors, people who inspired me to do better,” she says. “I realized I could learn and grow and take what I learned and apply it to school and to life. I realized it’s not always raining. There’s a sunny side of life.”

Octavia’s story is extreme, but it shows how important summer learning opportunities are for kids dealing with poverty. It’s about more than running the streets, too. Many poor kids find themselves on the wrong side of something called the “achievement gap,” the distance between outcomes—test scores, reading comprehension levels, graduation rates—achieved by kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Many things contribute to the achievement gap, but one of the biggest factors is summer. As soon as the school year ends, poor kids begin falling behind their more privileged peers. They start the summer slide.

At a meeting of summer-learning specialists in May, DISD superintendent Mike Miles explained how he planned to avoid that slide with his own kid. First up was a seven-week “boot camp.” Then YMCA summer camp for a week. Then a computer programming class. Then a trip to California to visit his sister. Then he returns for saxophone lessons and marching band practice. “The entire time, he’ll be reading—sometimes even books he wants to read,” Miles said with a smile. “It will be rigorous but fun. It would be amazing if we could provide every kid a summer like that.” 

Money gets you a long way toward amazing. According to the After-School Corporation, when compared with middle- and high-income students, low-income students face a 6,000-hour gap in learning by the time they reach sixth grade. That total includes things like 220 hours of being read to by parents, nearly 1,400 hours of pre-K, and more than 1,000 hours of summer learning programs. In fact, high-income kids are eight times more likely to attend summer programs than are poor kids. That’s because high-income families outspend low-income families by about $7,000 just on summer enrichment.

It’s not just high income, though. Other researchers who have studied the achievement gap found that about two-thirds of the ninth-grade academic achievement gap between poor kids and middle-class (and up) kids can be explained by the summer slide. That is, poor kids and their peers learn at about the same rate during the year, but poor kids’ learning regresses during the summer while other kids increase their learning. 

Dallas, as it turns out, has an impressive network of organizations working on this problem. Octavia’s Creative Solutions program is run by a group called Big Thought. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, Dallas Afterschool, and other groups also try to make up for those hours and dollars, with kids like Octavia but also with poor kids just looking for something constructive to do.  

“Dallas is a recognized leader in summer learning,” says Ann Stone of The Wallace Foundation, a New York-based research group that studies summer learning. Stone, speaking at that May conference with Miles, explained that this is true “partly because of the partnerships it has established: school districts, city agencies, nonprofits, and funders.”

This collaboration is key, and it’s a big reason DISD is seen as a leading district when it comes to summer programs. That may sound odd, given DISD’s reputation as a big, poor urban district that needs reform. But that struggle can at least partly be explained by politics. Unlike most reform efforts during the school year, summer learning initiatives rarely elicit the wrath of special interest groups. In other words, teachers unions stay out of the way. Summer programs don’t generate headlines. They are a safe place to experiment, a place where desire and data, not politics, drive decisions. 

“Dallas as a region has really embraced that if you want to go farther, you have to go together,” says Todd Williams, founding executive director of college and career readiness nonprofit Commit. He is also the education policy advisor to Mayor Mike Rawlings. “We’re looking at data together to evidence where we need the most help. Then we’re asking community experts to tell us how to address the biggest leaks in our educational pipeline. And that’s why, in Dallas, funders are responding, because they see a real strategy with a data feedback loop to determine if it’s working. It’s really unprecedented.”

Big Thought is perhaps the best-known of these organizations for its two flagship programs: Creative Solutions, which hits a small, high-risk target audience; and Dallas City of Learning, which was piloted last year and this year debuts in full force. City of Learning is an online program that allows students to learn about whatever interests them. Brick-and-mortar partners, like museums, also get involved. Kids earn digital badges to mark progress. “It also gives the program a way to measure and track success, see where we have or lack community assets, and get the data we need to improve,” says Gigi Antoni, president and CEO of Big Thought.

As in all things education, gathering that data is crucial—especially so in Dallas, which is one of five cities selected as part of a six-year, $55 million RAND study on summer learning. The study began in 2011; Big Thought is the local entity selected to oversee it with DISD. (Disclosure: Christine Rogers, wife of D Magazine editor Tim Rogers, is a PR consultant for Big Thought.) Called the National Summer Learning Project, the RAND study tracks the progress of more than 5,600 students, 89 percent of whom are low-income—a figure that neatly matches the makeup of DISD. There are some encouraging early findings. Students in high-quality summer learning programs performed better on math tests than students who applied but were not selected—a 17 to 21 percent average increase in one year.  

“All I know is, having something meaningful to work on each summer meant everything to me,” Octavia says. During the past five years, Octavia came back to Creative Solutions each summer, eventually as a staffer, and worked her way through school at a restaurant. In January, she received her high school diploma, and she’s working this summer with Creative Solutions as an AmeriCorps volunteer. She says the program has even helped her relationship with her mom. “Every week, she watches the DVD of the musical we put on that summer,” she says. “She’s very proud of me.” 

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