'A wondrous time to learn'

How a free Denver Public Schools camp seeks to stop the summer slide

PHOTO: Wesley Wright
Students eventually made DNA structures with the licorice and marshmallows in front of them.

At an eight-week elementary school summer camp run by Denver Public Schools, licorice and marshmallows are part of the program.

In one classroom last week, students twisted red licorice into helixes and wedged marshmallows stuck on toothpicks between them — a rough approximation of the structure of DNA. Sara Ulricksen, a DPS program specialist, described it as “disguised learning.”

“They think they’re playing with candy,” Ulricksen said this week at Cowell Elementary, site of the camp. “But they are really learning about DNA and how blood runs through the body.”

Dubbed Summer SLAM — the acronym stands for science, literacy, art and movement — the program is part of a broader movement nationally to arrest the so-called summer slide, when students left to their own devices lose what they’ve learned and fall behind.

“Our summer is a wondrous time to learn,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said during a visit to the camp last week.

The camp, in its fourth year, is free and open to all Denver Public Schools elementary students regardless of income. It is paid for by 2012’s voter-approved Measure 2A, which allowed Denver to retain and spend $68 million in tax revenue it otherwise would have been required to refund.

Most of the 150 students enrolled in this year’s camp are Latino, reflecting the location of the school in southwest Denver. The camp has a capacity of 180 students, officials said.

Research shows that children from poorer families fall behind in the summer as their more affluent peers attend camps or get support at home, setting them up for success in the fall.

Laura Johnson, spokeswoman for the National Summer Learning Association, which works with local organizations and school districts to promote effective programs, said the impact of falling behind on learning in the summer can be long-lasting.

“[The summer slide] has a cumulative effect, especially for low-income children,” she said.

According to the association, fifth-grade students with cumulative years of summer learning loss could be as many as three years behind their peers.

Finding affordable, accessible summer enrichment programs is another challenge, said Matthew Boulay, founder of the National Summer Learning Association.

“The formal camps are the gold standard,” he said. “They tend to have limitations on things like space or availability and price.”

Other states and cities have invested in programs designed to arrest the summer slide, as well.

Grant money from the Tennessee Department of Education paid for summer programming that has been credited for either raising or maintaining the participating children’s reading levels.

New York City students who spent more time on iPads as part of a summer program tended to improve their reading skills, research showed.

In Denver, staff at Cowell Elementary School have found that students who attend the camp are on par with or ahead of their classmates once school resumes, Ulricksen said.

Regardless of the approach, Boulay, of the National Summer Learning Association, said the key to avoiding the summer slide is keeping kids engaged in learning. For instance, you can curtail the amount of time kids devote to reading — just keep them reading.

“You can do it different ways,” he said. “It can be more relaxed [once school ends]. But keeping those same habits from the school year is really important.”

Early investment

Foundations put $50 million behind effort to improve lives of young Detroit children

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The heads of the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations, Rip Rapson and La June Montgomery announce a $50 million investment to support the new Hope Starts Here framework.

The two major foundations behind the creation of a ten-year plan to improve the lives of Detroit’s youngest children are putting up $50 million to help put the plan into action.

As they unveiled the new Hope Starts Here framework Friday morning, the Kellogg and Kresge foundations announced they would each spend $25 million in the next few years to improve the health and education of children aged birth to 8 in the city.

The money will go toward upgrading early childhood education centers, including a new Kresge-funded comprehensive child care center that the foundation says it hopes to break ground on next year at a location that has not yet been identified.

Other foundation dollars will go toward a just-launched centralized data system that will keep track of a range of statistics on the health and welfare of young children, and more training and support for early childhood educators.

The announcement at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History drew dozens of parents, educators and community leaders. Among them was Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti who said one of the major impediments to improving conditions for young children has been divisions between the various government and nonprofit entities that run schools, daycares and health facilities for young kids.

Vitti said the district would do its part to “to break down the walls of territorialism that has prevented this work from happening” in the past.

Watch the video of of the announcement here.

Detroit's future

In a city where 60 percent of young children live in poverty, a ten-year plan aims to improve conditions for kids

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

A coalition of community groups led by two major foundations has a plan to change the fortunes of Detroit’s youngest citizens.

The Hope Starts Here early childhood partnership is a ten-year effort to tackle a list of bleak statistics about young children in Detroit:

  • More than 60% of Detroit’s children 0-5 live in poverty — more than in any of the country’s 50 largest cities;
  • 13% of Detroit babies are born too early, compared to nine percent nationally;
  • 13% of Detroit babies are born too small, compared to eight percent nationally;
  • Detroit has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country;
  • Nearly 30,000 of eligible young Detroiters have no access to high-quality early learning or child care options.
  • That translates to learning problems later on, including the 86.5% of Detroit third graders who aren’t reading at grade level.

Hope Starts Here spells out a plan to change that. While it doesn’t identify specific new funding sources or propose a dramatic restructuring of current programs, the effort led by the Kresge Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, names six “imperatives” to improving children’s lives.

Among them: Promoting the health, development and wellbeing of Detroit children; supporting their parents and caregivers; increasing the overall quality of early childhood programs and improving coordination between organizations that work with young kids. The framework calls for more funding to support these efforts through the combined investments of governments, philanthropic organizations and corporations.

Read the full framework here: