While the “summer slide” may sound like a fun backyard activity, the loss of learning that occurs when kids take two months away from school is a real problem for educators and students.
In the hopes of mitigating the learning loss over the break and providing added benefits to parents, Pinellas County Schools (PCS) continues to expand its Summer Bridge program.
Summer Bridge provides fun, engaging and educational activities to prepare students for success when the new school year begins. Founded a decade ago by outgoing Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego, PCS continues to evolve the program’s curriculum and expand its benefits, reaching far beyond kids struggling in the classroom.
Kelly Austin, principal of Bellair Elementary School in Clearwater, said PCS strategically designed Summer Bridge to meet education standards as children move from one grade level to the next, which “kind of gives them a jumpstart.”
“I think 100% of our students are getting some success in some way, shape or form,” said Austin. “Whether it be academic, social, emotional, behavioral … it’s only going to help them.”
Teachers incorporate several subjects into a different theme each week; Austin said second-graders are currently learning about penguins.
“It’s a science-based theme, and then they also have math embedded, as well,” she said. “So, they’re really able to do reading, writing, math, science and language all into one package.”
Austin said students’ reading levels take the hardest hit over the summer break, especially in the youngest children. According to data cited by idtech.com, kids lose two months of reading skills over the summer. Expanding Learning reports that 66% of teachers must spend three to four weeks of a new school year reteaching previously learned skills.
Summer Bridge runs though June 30, and families can enroll students online through 5:30 p.m. today (Thursday, June 9). Parents can still register their kids following that cutoff by contacting individual schools for assistance.
According to PCS, over 16,000 children have enrolled in the program, an increase of about 1,000 from last year. Of those, 12,500 are elementary school students. In addition to sustaining and improving educational skills, Summer Bridge offers several wraparound benefits, and Austin said the childcare aspect was one reason for the preponderance of younger students.
“We partner with all of our local agencies,” she said. “So, if a student needs before and after care, we have that on-site, as well, at our Summer Bridge programs.”
Austin noted an added benefit for students that recently completed the 5th grade and are heading into middle school. Those children attend their future school for Summer Bridge, reducing some of the intimidation that comes with transitioning from the oldest kid on campus to the youngest.
“I think it’s a really great opportunity that kind of eases some of their fears,” said Austin. “Because they’ve been able to spend four weeks on the campus, going to the cafeteria and walking the hallways. I know some of the middle schools even let them do their lockers.”
The program, said Austin, has grown each year since it was adopted 10 years ago. She said enrollment increased as parents increasingly understood its benefits and that it was not “summer school.” She also noted that as the curriculum becomes more fun and engaging, children spread the word amongst friends and persuade their parents to register them the following year.
PCS also ensures the children receive two meals each day.
Over 60% of Pinellas students are economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free and reduced meals. Summer Bridge provides free breakfast and lunch for most elementary and middle school children.
Last year, PCS incorporated free transportation into the program for any student receiving bus service during the school year. Austin called that a “game-changer with enrollment as well.”
“We definitely have a full bus every day, dropping kids off and picking them up,” she added.
Austin noted the program also provides structure and keeps children engaged with their peer groups, which she believes is “critical in growing up.”
“Parents can feel safe dropping their children off at the school in the morning … and then they’re able to go off to work and know that they’re being fed and taken care of,” said Austin. “And they’re also learning along the way. It’s really a win-win.”
New for this year’s Summer Bridge is a progress monitoring system, similar to a report card, that students bring home after the second and fourth week of the program. The progress report tells parents what their child is studying and if they are approaching a “mastery” skill level or exceeding that threshold.
The progress report also includes informational material on how parents can help improve those specific skill levels at home.
PCS is also incentivizing attendance this year, and students with excellent attendance will receive tickets for free admission to a local art venue. The tickets allow a student and one adult guest to attend their choice of the Imagine Museum, Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, the James Museum, the Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Dunedin Fine Art Center or St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Austin said that while Summer Bridge operates in a relaxed atmosphere, and students have fun, engagement and attendance are needed to achieve the desired result.
“We really want the kids here because what they’re doing is super important,” said Austin. “And then it also highlights the arts … and it could spark an interest, and they realize that this is a passion that they have, and that’s something that they follow through with as they get older.”
For parents hoping to prevent the summer slide at home, Austin said one of the most valuable things they can do is also the simplest – having conversations with their child and building oral language skills.
She said these conversations could take place in the car while driving or when sitting down to eat at a restaurant, instead of the children playing games on phones or watching cartoons on tablets. Encouraging children to respond in complete sentences, added Austin, significantly increases a student’s reading and writing skills.
Austin also noted the benefits of reading to children – even fiction – and then discussing what happened with the characters or any new information they gleaned. Having a child write out the grocery list and then round up the cost at the store, said Austin, can also keep young minds sharp over the summer break.
“All of those things actually benefit students in their reading and writing,” said Austin. “Those are all just simple things that we use as adults all the time, and it’s important that kids see the reason why we’re learning these things at school is because we apply them in the real world.”
For more information on Summer Bridge, visit the website here.