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Winston-Salem Journal: Beating ‘summer slide': Programs pair learning and fun

WINSTON-SALEM, NC - August 6, 2013 - A "summer slide" sounds like a good time, right? Not exactly.

At least, not when it comes to education.

It works like this: Students leave school in June and take two full months off before returning to class in August. For many Forsyth County children, summer break is filled with vacations, sleeping in and soaking up summer sun. Soaking up math lessons on the other hand? Not so much.

And when students take two months off from learning, they don't just stay stagnant at their current education level. Many of them lose some of what they learned the previous year. The National Summer Learning Association estimates between one and three months' worth of learning can be lost over the summer, often more so for students from low-income families.

"We do have an education achievement gap," said Kim McClure, executive director of child care services for YMCA of Northwest North Carolina. "We're working to close that gap."

McClure oversees the YMCA's Summer Learning Academy, a six-week program that's in four Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools this year. The program is one of several available to help keep students engaged and learning while school is out. The programs not only prevent summer slide, but can even advance some students' learning.

The Summer Learning Academy serves students at Kernersville, Diggs-Latham, Old Town and Petree elementary schools in Forsyth County. Mocksville Elementary School in Davie County is also a Summer Learning Academy site. Ages served vary by location, but can be anywhere from rising first- through sixth-graders. Spots are limited, so schools help identify academically at-risk students. About 280 students are participating this summer.

The morning is spent on academics, strengthening reading and math skills. The afternoons are for "enrichment activities," things that look and feel more like what students would do at a traditional summer camp - health and fitness, arts and crafts, and game time.

"Obviously we want to focus on the education piece, but we realize this is their summer vacation," McClure said. "We want them to have fun, too."

Rising sixth-grader Izeya Mathabane said he's had fun this summer, but he said he's learned a lot, too. Mathabane just finished fifth grade at Kernersville Elementary and was feeling apprehensive about the move to sixth grade at Walkertown Middle School.

"The tutoring gives you everything you need for next year," Mathabane said. "I learned reading isn't always that bad."

The Summer Learning Academy setup is similar to that of a program run at five additional schools by BELL, a nonprofit the district contracts with to provide summer learning opportunities. Again, the program targets struggling students to prevent learning loss and ensure they're ready to start the next school year. BELL is open for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Like the YMCA effort, the BELL program works with students on reading and math skills in the morning and does additional enrichment activities in the afternoon.

Last year, the program served more than 1,000 Forsyth County students. This year that grew to more than 1,600.

"Priority is given to students who have the greatest academic need for participation - the students who are struggling, maybe have low grades in reading or math," said Michael Sikora, director of communications for BELL. "Economic needs are also factored in, for students who come from families who may not otherwise be able to afford or access opportunities in their neighborhoods."

Sikora said students last summer gained an average of three months of learning in reading and an average of five months in math skills. BELL tests students at the beginning and end of the five-week program to gauge effectiveness.

"When school starts again in the fall, they're ready for the challenges of the next grade, rather than needing a refresher or needing to catch up," he said.

The YMCA's program also expanded this summer - from just one school at its start in 2007 to five schools in Northwest North Carolina this summer. The Forsyth County expansion has been financed through the YMCA's annual giving campaign, as well as grants and donations from such organizations as Philip Morris International, the Lawrence E. Pope Foundation, the United Way, the Hispanic League and 21st Century Scholars.

McClure said that as the program grows and the community becomes more aware of the need for summer learning opportunities, she hopes to find additional financing sources to open more locations. There are still students who aren't being reached, she said.

By Arika Herron / Winston-Salem Journal