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Baltimore Sun: Walmart gives millions to support summer learning programs

BALTIMORE, MD - The National Summer Learning Association has been awarded an $11.5 million grant by the Walmart Foundation to fund high-quality summer learning programs in 10 cities over three years, including Baltimore.

Of that large grant, $615,000 will go to Baltimore summer learning programs - Building Educated Leaders for Life, known as BELL, and Higher Achievement.

Nadia Bryan, regional director for BELL, said that her program focuses on reading and math with the goal of closing what is called the achievement gap, exacerbated by lack of academic stimulation during the summer months.

"We realized going in that our scholars were behind academically," Bryan said.

This academic deficit can be attributed to what is called "summer learning loss," a phenomenon in which students lose substantial amounts of their academic knowledge over long breaks, and therefore start each school year slightly behind.

Sarah Pitcock, senior director of program quality for the National Summer Learning Association, said the grant will help emphasize the need for summer learning throughout the country. "We're getting to spend time in these 10 cities," she said. "Our whole goal is for these cities to prioritize summer learning and to maintain it once the three-year funding is over."

Pitcock said the Walmart Foundation first approached the organization about a year ago and wanted to make sure that the programs it was donating to were focused not just on education, but also on nutrition and physical fitness.

"We just worked together on a strategy over the course of two or three months to really hash out what the summer learning giving could look like," Pitcock said. "We had to know that there were programs out there that could make it happen this summer."

The Baltimore-based National Summer Learning Association, formerly the National Center for Summer Learning at the Johns Hopkins University, works with thousands of programs and school districts across the country to prevent summer learning loss.

Julie Gehrki, senior director for the Walmart Foundation, said the grant is an opportunity to help students at a time of the year when academics is not normally stressed.

"We work on these issues year-round, but what we know is summer is a critical time," she said. "In education we know that the achievement gap is broadened over the summer."

Bryan said that the BELL program provides a full day of learning for its "scholars," or children, beginning with three to four hours of literacy and math in the mornings and athletics and science in the afternoons.

Bryan said the grant money will allow BELL to serve 300 middle-school-aged students this summer. In the past, it had only had enough money to serve 80 middle school students.

"We know the work that needs to be done and the biggest gap is funding," Bryan said. "The Walmart dollars provided just what we needed."

Higher Achievement, the other Baltimore-area program to receive funding, stresses the importance of academics, social skills and leadership.

"When students get the skills and support they need to invest in their own success, they discover that they can be scholars," said executive director Erin Hodge-Williams.

The grant will help Higher Achievement increase its number of students by 60 for each summer over the next three years. The program has a long waiting list, and the expansion will allow it to accommodate children who otherwise would not have been able to participate.

"All children deserve high-quality summer opportunities," Hodge-Williams said.

Julie Baughman | xcxjbaughman@baltsun.com

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