Closing the summer learning gap

As summer winds down the new school year is just a few weeks away. We at Catholic Charities are completing a summer of programming committed to keeping our young people healthy, active and engaged while reducing summer learning loss.

Unfortunately, far too many children leave the classroom for summer vacation, and also leave behind access to regular breakfast and lunch, educational materials, technological tools, and, more importantly, the mentors who motivate them to keep their minds sharp and develop as life-long learners.

The good news is that there is growing recognition that maintaining educational enrichment programs over the summer not only improves a student's ability to achieve at a higher level when they return to school in the fall, but also builds self-esteem and confidence. Research conducted by RAND Education found that summer learning programs can prevent the loss of knowledge and skills that occurs over the summer and disproportionately affects low-income students. The most disturbing finding from this research is that summer learning loss is cumulative; over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.

Preventing summer learning loss for children from families with limited resources is truly a team effort, and includes the larger social services community, law enforcement, city and state officials, foundations, the business community, educators, and many others. This summer Catholic Charities provided a variety of programs designed to keep young people engaged and learning, including:

-- Sunset Point Camp where we welcome more than 300 inner city children for a free week-long overnight camping experience. Children who come to Camp have the opportunity to escape the city heat, both literally and figuratively. For some children Sunset Point offers a first-ever walk on the beach or ocean swim.

-- Peabody Child Care where children cared for in our expanded full-day afterschool programs enjoy summer activities that include weekly learning-rich field trips.

-- The Teen Center at St. Peter's extended hours offer 15 to 19 year old teens from the Bowdoin/Geneva neighborhood of Dorchester educational and recreational activities, along with engaging summer classes taught by Boston Public School teachers. The Teen Center also employs teens as peer leaders, learning important job skills as they participate in the supervision of day to day activities.

-- The Youth Tutoring Youth at the Laboure Center in South Boston, which engages 16 to 19 year old teens as tutors to younger students -- both age groups at-risk of summer learning loss -- also offers extended hours for enrichment activities. We have found that enlisting teens as tutors to younger kids not only provides important mentoring opportunities but encourages the development of important life skills such as inter-personal relations, conflict resolution and public speaking.

-- The newly launched Boys 4 Peace program at Catholic Charities North in Lynn engages at-risk boys ages 10 to 14 in activities that inspired teamwork and tapped into their artistic side including art projects, community service, sports and field trips. The boys in this program are still talking about their first-ever musical theater experience!

These are just a few examples of the Catholic Charities programs that engage children and teens in safe, vibrant summer activities across the agency. As the summer of 2011 comes to a close, we trust that we have done our best to insure that the children who we reached out to this summer will be returning to school not only well cared for and rested, but ready for the academic work that lies ahead.

To learn more about our work, please go to our website

Debbie Rambo is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.