Silverberg: Instead of losing ground over summer break, invest in schools

Kathy Silverberg

Kathy Silverberg

Memorial Day weekend soon will be upon us and with it the traditional end of the school year, the beginning of summer vacation.

Students in Sarasota County go to school until the end of the holiday week and in Manatee County classes go a bit longer, until June 9, but in Charlotte County the school year ends this Thursday.

No doubt students and teachers alike are looking toward those last days with great anticipation. Children have become accustomed to seeing school as work and summer vacation as playtime.

For those whose families value enrichment opportunities for their children and can afford to provide them, this can be an exciting time but for too many in our society, summer without the routine of school can be a source of consternation. Parents who work outside the home — and that defines more than half of American families — must plan for their children to be adequately supervised in the summer, a prospect that can be quite costly, in many instances, even prohibitively so.

The Census Bureau indicated that in 2015, 60.6 percent of married-couple families included two working parents. In single-parent families, the percentage was higher, nearly 71 percent with mothers employed and 82 percent with fathers. For a large number of these families, finding and affording enrichment activities for their children in the summer is a difficult task and for too many, the only option is an unstructured, even unsafe, alternative.

Adding to the problem is that children who are not subjected to learning opportunities in the summer — the reality for many low-income families — tend to lose ground to their more affluent peers and begin the new school year as much as three months behind. The Campaign for Grade Level Reading, of which Sarasota and Manatee counties are participants, calls this “summer slide” leaving children behind, likely for the rest of their schooling. Those who cannot read proficiently by the third grade are considered 13 times more likely to drop out before high school graduation.

To counteract this problem, as well as helping young children prepare for kindergarten, Alta Vista Elementary School in Sarasota began the Eagle Academy four years ago thanks to the generosity of philanthropists Joe and Mary Kay Henson working through the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Children preparing to enter Alta Vista Elementary, a school with a heavy population of low-income students, received summer instruction, an opportunity for enrichment activities and two meals a day for seven weeks.

Since then, with continued help from the Hensons and other charitable contributors, the program has expanded to offer summer classes for children through the third grade. Programs for parents as well as other social services have been added to the effort. It has been so successful in improving achievement levels that the school system has agreed to expand the summer program to include three other schools, Emma E. Booker, Gocio and Tuttle.

The cost for the Alta Vista program, entirely born by the benefactors, is about $850 per child. Public funds will be needed for the expansion and some have questioned the expense. Most families that have to make arrangements for child care in the summer would say that is a bargain even without the added benefit of gaining academic achievement and improving their chances for success in school.

Programs such as the Eagle Academy are exciting, offering a ray of hope for children who might otherwise be relegated to an inferior educational experience and poor job prospects in the future. But the real issue is the need for more schooling for all of America's children. It is past time to abandon the agrarian tradition of children being needed in the summer to work on the farm. The body of knowledge a child today must absorb to be educated requires a year-round approach and a longer school day.

Without an extended summer vacation the problem of low-income children going hungry when school is not in session could be eliminated and think of reintroducing the enrichment programs like music, art and physical education that have been squeezed out in lieu of test-centered learning.

More hours in school would require more public funding, but there could be savings in other areas, particularly in social services and in the burden families must shoulder to care for children after classes end. Just as important would be the dividends this nation would reap from a better educated population, young people prepared to take on the challenges of an increasingly complicated and interconnected world.

It comes down to making an investment today that will result in a better life for many in the years to come.

— Kathy Silverberg is former publisher of the Herald-Tribune's southern editions. She can be reached at kathy.silverberg@comcast.net.