Thursday, August 9, 2007

Catching up: Area teachers must spend the first days of school making up for what students forgot

Gayle Bowman, an enrichment teacher at C.E. Hanna Elementary, helps Harrison Stanley, 8. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star

Organizing her classroom leading up to the first day of school, Cindy Lynch normally only runs into other teachers doing the same.

But this summer, the teacher of gifted education returned to C.E. Hanna Elementary to find a computer lab full of students engaged in learning.

It was Oxford’s first year to offer summer enrichment programs, hoping to engage children during their time off so they’re ready to learn as the new school year begins today.

The programs are becoming more common across the country as schools explore ways to negate summer learning loss.

“I teach my children algebra, and they forget a lot of that over the summer,” Lynch said. “They haven’t been practicing it.”

Research from the Summer Learning Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that all children—regardless of race, income or other social factors—forget about 2.6 months’ worth of math skills they learned before vacation.

Data showed more pronounced losses in math than reading, because parents are typically more attuned to the importance of reading, so they emphasize it more.

Students from poorer families lose nearly three months of reading skills on tests, about twice as much as middle- or upper-class students with more resources at home.

Brenda McLaughlin, deputy director of the center at Johns Hopkins, said that alone accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap between poorer students and their peers. By the time they reach fifth grade, low-income children are more than two years behind in reading.

“Some people don’t think summer learning opportunities are as important as they are,” she said. “We hear teachers spend about the first month or more of school to get kids back on track.”

In addition to athletic camps, Oxford offered enrichment programs this year, giving children a chance to learn about geography and culture, computer skills, foreign languages and even etiquette.

“It’s something fun and interesting that maybe they can’t do during the normal school year,” said Khristie Goodwin, Oxford’s special education coordinator.

“We’re definitely going to expand it next year.”

Administrators hoped to keep kids in the swing of learning and ease the adjustment of returning to school.

“They’re just out of the habit of doing anything but playing,” Lynch said.

At Alexandria Elementary School, Principal Sarah McClure said teachers have brought in students for the past nine summers. In the morning, they practice academic skills, and children attend different camps—archaeology, gardening, theater, space—in the afternoons.

“It’s to keep them actively involved in learning,” she said. “We would hope they would gain some knowledge, but we prevent them from experiencing that loss over the summer.”

Saks Elementary School provided parents in each grade with suggested reading lists for the summer. Students who read five from the list and five of their own choosing will receive a T-shirt at an assembly on Friday.

“Probably the first four to six weeks is a review time,” said Karri Findley, an assistant principal at the school. “Then we’ll start full force. We want everyone reading. We want books in those children’s hands on the first day.”

Patti Moore, a sixth-grade teacher at C.E. Hanna, said optional summer reading lists tend to work better.

“What you run into is some children just do not have the support at home,” she said. “So are you going to punish them as soon as the school year starts? You just can’t.”

Moore said more than learning loss, she notices trouble falling back into the school routine, with tired or hungry kids used to sleeping late and snacking through the day.

The learning loss “is no different, really, from when you teach something in August and then prepare for (proficiency tests) in the spring,” she said.

And to better assess students early, Moore said most schools will administer the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, test within the first couple of weeks to identify individual strengths and weaknesses.

“I’ve already been sitting at home looking over their test scores, showing us where to start,” she said.

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