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Education | local | Learning With Less

Summer's Slide Puts Kids Behind When School Starts Again

It’s been more than a month since most Oregon students have sat down in a public school classroom. Over last school year, OPB looked at how budget cuts are affecting schoolchildren, in a series we call “Learning With Less.”  

Unlike the schools, our series is not on summer holiday. Rob Manning reports on the downside of summertime.

Rob Manning / OPB

About ten kids in bright blue Portland Parks t-shirts are scampering in circles around two grown-ups in a game of “freeze tag.”

Nearby, a long line is forming for the free lunches here at Northeast Portland’s Glenhaven Park.

Volunteer Dennis Smith is using a garden hose to clean off the kids’ hands. Some youngsters linger a moment to cool off. Others are shy, and Smith has to coax them, “Come on down. Come on.”

Smith has brought his two daughters to Glenhaven Park for years.

“The games and activities that they have – such a wide variety, for smaller kids, they have a section for them. It’s just great.”

But all the freeze tag and free lunches conceal a secret about summer.

Rob Manning / OPB

“The summer break is a problem,”  according to reading specialist Pat Prevost is not the only educator lamenting the long summers kids spend away from the classroom.

A few months ago, when schools were closed for spring break, dozens of teachers came to a hotel in Wilsonville to hear a national education expert.

Linda Darling-Hammond is a professor at Stanford – and she was the education policy advisor for Barack Obama’s presidential transition in 2008.

Months before summer started, Darling-Hammond said the long vacation is a big reason poor kids fall behind.

“Affluent kids gain achievement during the summer, and poor kids lose achievement. And in fact, during the school year, kids in rich and poor schools achieve at just about the same rate – the slope is just about identical,” Darling-Hammond says.

So then how much of the achievement gap is summer?

“Two thirds of that happen because of summer learning loss.” 

Educators call it the “summer slide.”

Oregon has expanded summer lunch programs in recent years to more than 500 sites – like this park – to keep kids from going hungry. Activities are available, too – but those often carry a cost, and aren’t academic.

When public schools run programs, they’re often not for everyone.

Rob Manning / OPB
Elizabeth Ellis

Right next to Glenhaven Park is Portland’s Madison High. It’s one of five district high schools running an orientation program called “Leap Into 9th Grade.” Teens learn study skills and get familiar with the expectations of freshman year.

If kids who aren’t that age show up looking for something to do, program director Elizabeth Ellis directs them to Glenhaven Park.

“If we could as a district, offer more, we would. The funding for that is not there. So, rather than not offering it at all, we at least try to find the areas where we can really strengthen. And this is it. I mean, we’re tryin’.”

“Leap Into 9th Grade” isn’t focused on the summer slide. It’s targeting the specific challenge of entering high school. The slide is the target at another school, a few miles away.

Harrison Park K-8 is home to PDX Summer School. In three years, the program has exploded from three students to 65.

Harrison Park teacher Tim Schulze started the program to help kids who don’t speak English at home, like a Turkish girl he remembers named Zarina. He says she did well in the spring. And then summer hit.

“You know, when Zarina came back, she was way behind, when she was at grade level in the spring,” Schulze says.

Lynette Vo is from a Vietnamese speaking family. She’s best friends with Ramla Malik, from Northeast Kenya.

Rob Manning / OPB

The kids I spoke to sounded happy to be in class all morning in the summer. Lynette Vo is from a Vietnamese speaking family. She’s best friends with Ramla Malik, from Northeast Kenya. They’re both 11.

Rob: “What do you think you’d be doing if you didn’t come in here?”

Ramla Vo: “Sleeping.”

Lynette Vo: “Yeah, sleeping. I sleep a lot.”

Lynette Vo says she had swimming and piano lessons last summer. But no school.

Lynette Vo: “I was bored.”

The kids get recess, and most of them will tell you that seeing their friends is their favorite part of summer school. But nine year-old Chadsady Ma Naenphan wants to improve her English.

Chadsady: “So I can talk to other people that are English.”

Rob: “Do you think it’ll help you do well in school?”

Chadsady: “Yeah.”

The program limited enrollment to keep class size to 13 students. The non-profit behind the school would have to raise more money to serve more kids learning English.

Rob Manning / OPB
Tim Schulze and Pat Prevost

Schulze says more parents want their kids to attend – including English-speaking parents whose kids aren’t eligible.

Parents beyond Portland say they’re frustrated there isn’t more summer school.

OPB followed the Garcia family in Forest Grove over last school year. Parents, Maricela and Jose say they looked into putting their middle school daughter Brianna, in a summer program, but couldn’t get in.

“If they want to go to the summer school, they’re supposed to apply, huh? If you qualify, you go in. If you don’t qualify, you don’t go. There’s a lot of time to be in the house,” Jose Garcia says.

The Garcias managed to find other activities. And they’re using a tutor for both Brianna and her little sister, Chelsea, who’s going into 3rd grade.  Chelsea had one main priority: Times tables.

Educators say there’s reason to believe summer programs can help.

Keith Zvoch is an associate professor at University of Oregon. He spent three years studying a summer program at the Bethel district in Eugene.  And he compared that with how fast students read after not going to summer school.

“They can lose up to five or ten words per minute. On the other hand, kids who go to summer school, and receive this intensive intervention over the summer period, instead of maintaining or losing ground, they’re actually gaining the ability to read words, on the level of an additional five or ten words per minute.”

Zvoch isn’t studying the program at Bethel this summer, though.

“Due to budget cuts, they were unable to provide the funding to continue the program, even given the successes that we’ve been able to demonstrate over the past several years,” Zvoch says.

Based on national assessments, Oregon’s achievement gap is larger than many states. Some advocates suggest it’s more than a coincidence that Oregon also has a shorter school year – and therefore a longer “summer slide.”

Keith Zvoch, national expert Linda Darling-Hammond, and statewide advocates, the Chalkboard Project all agree that funding summer programs could help. And some argue that as Oregon looks to overhaul its education system, changing the calendar should be on the table.


Some sources for this story came to us by way of OPB’s Public Insight Network. Learn more about the network at

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