SAVANNAH, Ga. – Summer vacation is rapidly drawing to a close, and many students will end the summer further behind academically than when it started. Research shows that students lose, on average, a month’s worth of learning over the summer. Low-income students lose more, which exacerbates achievement gaps. In Savannah, one program is pushing low-income students ahead in school by summer’s end – through a combination of work and play.
On a recent hot afternoon at the Chatham County Aquatic Center, a group of tiny swimmers don lifejackets and do something they’ve never done before – jump into the deep end of the pool.
They stand hesitantly on the launching pad, urged on by a volunteer swim teacher treading water out in the pool in front of them. On the teacher’s count of three, each student splashes into the water as their classmates cheer.
These are students in Horizons Savannah’s summer learning program, which every summer serves low-income kindergartners through eighth graders drawn from Savannah’s public schools in a six-week program hosted by Savannah Country Day School.
Some of the students didn’t know how to swim before they started Horizons as kindergartners. Swim instructor Mary Ryan Buchanan explains what the students are about to do.
“This is the big scary pool,” explains Buchanan. “So they’re all really scared when they get over here, before they jump in, and then when they jump in and they come up, their faces are just beaming. They are so proud of themselves.”
The students concur, telling stories of “coming over” their fear of the deep water after watching their teachers demonstrate and their peers go on before them. Horizons Savannah’s director Christy Edwards says overcoming the fear of the deep end is a summer activity that has benefits far beyond the swimming pool.
“Our number one thing is to teach them life saving skills,” Edwards says. “But then what we’re finding is if they’re willing to take risks to learn something in the pool that they never thought they could learn, a lot of times that helps them build confidence to do the same thing in the classroom.”
A few hours later, the classroom is exactly where these kids are. The kids are now dried off and curled up with blankets on the floor of their classroom. Their teacher asks them questions about the motivations of the main character of the novel that they’re reading, and the students call out from beneath their caves of desks.
Lorna Smith, the executive director of Horizon’s national office, says that the balance of academics with fun enrichment and physical activities is key for summer learning.
“And so if we just put them in a classroom, it’s really been shown by research that that doesn’t work particularly well,” Smith says. “So we want our kids to engage and really have a good time but learn at the same time.”
To gauge their success, the Horizons programs assess the students at the beginning and the end of each summer.
“What we’re seeing consistently with Horizons kids is that instead of losing two to three months of skills in math and reading over the summer, they’re gaining two to three months,” Smith says.
Those months add up. Horizons accepts students when they’re in kindergarten and guarantees them a spot in the program every summer until they get to high school. Smith says that’s important because just as research shows summer learning loss accumulates over time, so does summer learning gain. So the goal is to push these low-income students far enough to close the achievement gap.
And older students like Deja Mason and Adrian Smith say that even though it can be a drag to spend their summers in what sometimes feels like school, they can see the payoffs. Take last year, when Deja says she slogged through “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
“It was the most boring-est book,” Deja says. “But then after we read it, we worked through it, and then during the school year, it was good because I knew how to do it and knew everything and I got like an 853 on the CRCT for reading.” Deja then points to Adrian, saying he bested her test score on both reading and math.
“I’m not going to brag,” Adrian replies.
Deja and Adrian’s time as Horizons students is ending this summer; they’re starting ninth grade this fall. But they’re planning on coming back next year as volunteers, hoping to pass along some of the knowledge they’ve gained over their summers here to a younger generation of kids.