Earl Phalen wants to turn summer from a loss to an advantage for low-income kids
Summer. For some kids, it means freedom, swimming, endless days and lasting memories; sadly, for many it can also mean falling far behind at school. Researchers call it “summer learning loss,” and while it touches students at all grade and income levels, its effects are dramatic among the poorest: starved for learning opportunities from July to September, low-income students lose about three months’ worth of reading and math skills. Each fall, they start the school year playing catch-up. Some scholars estimate that two-thirds of the ninth-grade academic achievement gap between low- and middle-income students can be explained by the differences in their summer experiences during elementary school (PDF).
Boston-based Earl Martin Phalen founded Summer Advantage to tackle the problem of learning loss, beginning in Indiana — where he was lured by a Mind Trust Fellowship in 2009. He works with school districts, teachers, and parents to identify K-8 students who are enrolled in a rigorous six-week program of learning and exploration. These “scholars” spend their days getting hands-on instruction in reading, writing, and math from certified teachers in a classroom setting; and when they’re not doing academic work they’re busy with enrichment activities–art, music, drama, and gym–field trips, and community service projects.
The best-performing scholars from the program’s first year gained three months in their reading, writing, and math skills as measured by standardized tests. The early results so impressed the Indiana Department of Education that it upped its $1 million first-year commitment to a $3 million grant to help the program grow. (In its first summer, the program served just over 1,000 kids; this year, around 3,000 are enrolled at 14 sites throughout the state.) Research shows that if students stick with a summer learning program for several years, the benefits are amplified—so it’s good news that 90% of last year’s class decided to enroll again.
Phalen, who also co-founded the after-school and summer enrichment program BELL, and now runs the national early literacy organization Reach Out and Read, wants to take Summer Advantage national. The program costs $1,000 per scholar to run, so he’s looking for more long-term institutional grants like the one from the Indiana DOE. “I don’t believe philanthropy scales,” he says. “It can help with projects, but we want to bring this model to one million kids around the nation. To do that you need to leverage large sums of money.”
For the kids, he says, the experience can be transformative. “They make incredible progress,” he says, and not just academically. “You can see it in their self-confidence—the way they ask questions, the firmness of their handshakes. This is all part of Summer Advantage’s ultimate goal, he says—”to help kids develop not only as scholars, but as citizens and leaders.”
Photo: Summer Advantage