Western Pa. school districts get creative to put stop to summer 'brain drain'

| Sunday, July 28, 2013, 10:39 p.m.

Melissa O'Brien's 10-year-old daughter has plenty of fun activities such as sports camps lined up for the summer months.

But the Greensburg Salem School District mom wants to ensure that when her daughter returns to school next month, she hasn't forgotten the reading and writing skills learned during the past academic year.

O'Brien's concerns are rooted in a well-documented educational phenomenon known as “summer slide” or “summer brain drain.”

Sixty-six percent of teachers say it takes them at least three to four weeks to reteach some skills at the start of a school year, according to a study by the National Summer Learning Association.

School districts across the nation run summer learning programs aimed at stemming brain drain, but cuts in education funding sent school administrators scrambling to find creative ways to sustain these programs.

The Greensburg Salem School District's free Young Writers Camp helped keep O'Brien's daughter, Megan, engaged in learning.

“It's worth the effort of getting her here,” O'Brien, 39, said as she picked up Megan at Greensburg Salem Middle School after a day at camp.

The five-day-a-week, two-week camp, which costs the district $8,000, is funded by the Old Joe Club Fund of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, which stepped in after state and federal funding cuts.

This summer, students are learning to write about food and cooking, studying measurements in cookbooks and learning to write food reviews.

Greensburg Salem offers a no-cost program once a week for six weeks called Salem Summer Swap, in which teachers volunteer to go to housing developments and playgrounds to read to students and deliver other lessons.

Parent Beth Smith, 33, who lives in Autumn Brook complex in Greensburg, said she's grateful that the school “comes to her” and charges nothing for the service.

“I think reading is important. It keeps their brains healthy,” said Smith, whose children, David, 6, and Aaliyah, 4, attend the sessions.

Establishing the programs is sometimes easier than ensuring students can attend, according to some administrators.

“I'm sure you're hearing funds are so limited ... (but) what we struggle with is getting the kids to us because transportation is costly,” said Ashley Nestor, coordinator of elementary education for Greensburg Salem. “We thought, OK, if we can't get the kids to us we go to them.”

Creativity needed

As public funding dries up, administrators are looking at public-private partnerships and volunteerism to keep summer programs alive, said Catherine Augustine, who authored a 2011 study on the subject for RAND, a nonprofit research group.

The study showed money is the primary barrier to starting summer learning programs, which cost between $1,109 and $2,801 per child for a six-hour-a-day, five-week program.

Pittsburgh Public Schools uses a public-private partnership to fund its six-week Summer Dreamers Academy.

The program's $3.3 million budget is paid for through The Wallace Foundation, The Walmart Foundation, The Fund for Excellence in Pittsburgh Public Schools and the district, according to program director Eddie Wilson.

Pittsburgh school officials felt the pinch after stimulus funding used to start the program ran out two years ago. The academy was forced to drop 2,600 students from the program. This year, 4,500 applied, but only 2,800 were accepted, Wilson said.

Students in kindergarten through eighth-grade in the Summer Dreamers program have a 90-minute block of literacy instruction each day and a 90-minute math block, followed by lunch and activities.

Wilson said he would love to accept all of those students, but money is a problem.

He said summer learning sometimes takes a budgetary backseat to needs for the traditional school year.

“It's easy for districts to think of summer as a completely isolated budget line and easy for summer programs to be cut at the district,” he said.

Gary Huggins, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association, said that although many districts view summer programs as an unnecessary expense, many others, such as Pittsburgh, are coming around to the idea that such programing can help produce college-ready students and higher test scores.

“We're not going to close achievement gaps, and they're not going to hit those college-ready targets if we don't address summer in some useful way,” he said.

The Upper St. Clair School District found another way to fund summer programming.

The district, which has steadily expanded summer enrichment programs, charges students $75 to $350 for the supplemental classes.

Upper St. Clair offers courses in college essay writing, SAT preparation and building computers. “It's cost-neutral for the district,” superintendent Patrick O'Toole said. For students who can't afford to pay, there are scholarships through community foundations.

Kate Wilcox is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-6155 or kwilcox@tribweb.com.

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